by Jess Lynde
Most Consistently Pleasurable
Week to week, Justified was the show that gave me the most pure enjoyment this year. In its fourth season, the show was hugely entertaining and has clearly become very comfortable in its skin, capable of balancing witty repartee, quirky criminals, comic romps, tense standoffs, explosive action, and deep pathos. The world of Justified is so fun to visit, with characters that are tremendously dynamic and engaging, and even when the show tackles tense or darker material --- and it certainly goes for the gut-punch from time to time --- it’s still an absolute pleasure to spend an hour with Raylan, Boyd, Ava, and all their associates and adversaries. I’m eagerly anticipating the series return next month!
Continuum was, hands down, my favorite new sci-fi show this year. Imported from our neighbors to the north, the series centers on a time traveling cop from a fascist future in which the corporations rule all, who is trying to bring down a terrorist organization that fights for the 99 percent. I’m always a sucker for a good time travel story, but Continuum also does that thing that great science fiction does: provide an interesting perspective on contemporary issues. In this case, I love the way it focuses on the dangers of corporate power and economic class disparities, constantly shifting your perspectives on and sympathies with the various players. Villains aren’t always what they seem, nor are the heroes, and motives and methods consistently challenge the viewer to question their allegiances. The show became very propulsive and exciting in Season 2, managing to throw an endless stream of surprises and unexpected developments into the mix. I’m not entirely sure I always understand what’s happening on the series or where it is headed --- oh, the time travel theory headaches it gives me! --- but I can’t wait to see what happens next.
The Americans is a show I was initially going to pass on, but the early reviews seemed promising, so I decided to give it a try. Boy, was I ever glad I did! The Americans quickly became one of my very favorite shows of the year. It was tense, complex, and layered, with great characters, interesting conflicts, and compelling moral dilemmas. I was endlessly fascinated by how it could simultaneously make me both root for and against nearly every character on the show. Good guys, bad guys, who can tell which is which? Moreover, it provided a very unique lens on what constitutes a marriage and what makes a marriage work (or not). A great, great new series.
I had to create a special category for The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones because my enjoyment of these shows went well beyond “consistently pleasurable” and right on over into obsession. That doesn’t mean I blindly loved everything they put on screen, or was incapable of finding fault with certain character developments or story threads --- heaven knows these shows are far from perfect --- but my engagement with TWD and GOT was at an entirely different level than with those shows noted above. When they were airing, I spent excessive amounts of time pondering, discussing, and reading commentary about episodes. It was almost a relief when seasons wrapped and I could pull myself back to reality!
I’m not entirely sure what it is about The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones that that makes me love them so obsessively. They aren’t really comparable in terms of storytelling quality or character depth, so why these two shows? Maybe it’s their thematic resonance. Both focus on how people choose to live in worlds that are coming apart at the seams, and how they then cope with the consequences of their choices. I guess I just find it appealing to grapple with those issues abstractly, and these two shows let me do it in spades.
Going Out on a High Note?
I feel like I need to address Breaking Bad, because the show has been atop my list of favorites for the last several years. This year, it was one of my most anticipated shows. And for seven straight weeks this summer, I was completely in its thrall. Breaking Bad delivered some truly incredible and gut-wrenching storytelling, culminating in the intense and emotionally devastating one-two-three punch of ‘To’hajiilee,’ ‘Ozymandias,’ and ‘Granite State.’
[spoilers follow] All the chickens were coming home to roost. All the selfish, destructive choices made in service of “good intentions” were spinning out their often horrific consequences. It was glorious and soul crushing, all at once. And then came the finale. Oh, ‘Felina.’ Most people seemed to love Walter White’s swan song, but I just couldn’t. After all the people he hurt, and all the lives he destroyed, watching him get to pull off one last caper and go out on his own terms wasn’t the moral reckoning I wanted or needed from this show --- even if his machinations did result in some small comfort for those he’d hurt most. [end spoilers]
The final hour worked for most of the audience, but ultimately not for me (despite numerous attempts to convince myself otherwise). At the end of the day, one of my favorite series left a somewhat bitter aftertaste, and I’m still rather blue about it. Nonetheless, Breaking Bad was a hell of a ride, and this final run offered some of the show’s absolute best.
Other Highlights and Lowlights
Daytime Viewing Only. Surprisingly, I managed to find two series in 2013 that I couldn’t watch too close to bedtime. Hannibal was probably the most disturbing series I watched this year, and yet with riveting performances from Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy, I simply couldn’t look away. Week after week, I was consistently amazed by how I could be equally horrified by intensely graphic final reposes, sumptuous dinner spreads, and Mads Mikkelsen’s utterly composed stillness. Similarly, The Fall (available on Netflix) was fantastically unsettling, with tremendously compelling performances from Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan. I loved the slow pacing, which gave moments room to breathe and allowed the procedural elements and the emotional aftermath to really get under your skin.
Best Binges. Some shows take time to grow on you or are best enjoyed at a weekly pace. And some shows immediately grab you and compel you to toss life and responsibilities to the curb because you just have to know What. Happens. Next. This year, the two shows I couldn’t stop watching once I discovered them were Orphan Black (10 episodes in one day) and Orange is the New Black (13 episodes over 4 days). Interestingly, both were shows focused on women, trapped by circumstance or by their own choices, trying to assert some measure of control over their situations. Each show featured characters that were vivid, engaging, and incredibly well-acted. Like so many others, I have to give special props to Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, who managed to make multiple characters feel like genuinely different people. Stunning work.
Quirky Delights. As longtime readers know, I like to balance out my television diet of violent, tense dramas with a helping of sweet, quirky comedies. This year Parks and Recreation and Suburgatory ably continued to hit the spot. Neither show was as strong as in past years, but both still managed to deliver the heart, the funny, and some amazingly emotional stories. I was particularly delighted by the Parks episodes about the mega-bachelor party and Ben and Leslie’s wedding, and Suburgatory’s finale episodes perfectly balanced the completely absurd and the emotionally resonant. I’ve also got to give a shout out to the late, lamented Bunheads. Aah, Bunheads. Such an odd, eclectic, little tone poem of a show. And, oh, the dances … Such a wonderfully expressive way to show where the characters were at emotionally. You had a truly delightful single season, Bunheads, and I’m going to miss you.
Intriguing Newcomers. I’ve already covered a number of newcomers that captured my attention in 2013, but the year was so chock-a-block with new material, there are a few more shows worth mentioning. Defiance -- This new sci-fi series wasn’t immediately gripping, but stepped up and became more and more interesting as the season went along. Despite a somewhat messy finale, I’m really curious to see where things go when the series returns. Rectify -- I highly recommend this fantastic 6-episode series from Sundance, about a man recently released from death row on a technicality. It was very slow-paced, but in an effective and haunting way. Rarely have I found watching a man sit and stare into space as he wrestles with his demons so emotionally affecting. The Bridge -- This summer series on FX was interesting, if not overly compelling. The arc of the season didn’t entirely work for me, but they built up an intriguing world and several engaging characters. I grew particularly fond of the dynamic between the two leads, Demian Bichir and Diane Kruger, and I’m curious to see what the creators do with the series’ unexplored potential next season.
New to Me. Given the glut of new and returning material this year, I didn’t get to settle in with some old series until this fall. (Thanks, Fall TV Season, for your relatively weak offerings.) So the only “New to Me” series that I started this year were Spartacus: Blood and Sand and In Treatment. It’s early going with both right now, and they offer wildly different types of storytelling --- and the blood, sex, and editing on Spartacus can get downright ridiculous --- but I’m finding both highly engaging and I’m glad I’ve got several more seasons to enjoy.
Playing Out the String. Sadly, I had to create a new category for two shows that I’ve fallen very much out of love with, but which are so close to their endgames, that I’ve decided to stick it out to the bitter end. Congratulations, Warehouse 13 and How I Met Your Mother! For awhile there, I was pretty angry with these shows, for becoming shadows of their former selves and damaging characters I cared about. But now ... now, I’m just tired and worn down. Resigned, as it were, to their current incarnations. Thankfully, each show only has a handful of episodes left, and there’s even an off-chance that they could rally at the very end. So here’s hoping!
Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out. Sometimes, a show that I used to love gets to the point where I don’t really enjoy it anymore, but I still have too much emotional investment in the characters to walk away (see: ‘I Wish I Knew How to Quit You’ and ‘Playing Out the String’). And other times, a show that I once enjoyed is kind enough to make me stop caring, so I can quit with relative ease. This year, Once Upon A Time, Modern Family, Hawaii Five-0, and Falling Skies did me this favor. With each of these shows, I eventually came to the realization that I had no interest in catching up with the stack of unwatched episodes on the DVR, because I simply didn’t care anymore what happened next to the characters. That’s not to say that they necessarily became terrible shows; they just stopped being engaging for me. And with so much else to watch ... Thanks for opening up my schedule a bit, guys!
Warm holiday wishes, all! Here’s hoping 2014 brings us another great year of television!