Saturday, December 31, 2011

BEST OF 2011 TV: Best New TV Shows

"Shameless" (SHO)
Television tends to be a mirror of society. And while it may seem insane to think that there exists a family of six that con and steal their way out of each month's debt, because their alcoholic dad and flake of a mom can't be relied on, more of them exist than you can imagine. This series is unapologetically raw and intense. It'll make you laugh. It'll break your heart. But one thing you'll never do is judge, because you'll be too busy wishing you had the balls to survive their city and their life. Wishing you had the balls to jack a meat truck and turn your kitchen into a meat market, to break into your shoplifter's home and steal back the gun he took, to be so bold as to fall in love even though you've seen ample evidence as to the irredeemable nature of mankind. They make you want to be shameless.
"Revenge" (ABC)
Crime. Betrayal. Vengeance. Eternal love. The essential ingredients of this suspenseful nighttime soap that isn't diluted with goofy "Desperate Housewives" antics or inevitably inconsequential "Gossip Girl" revenge plots. It's instead inflicted with methodical scheming, decades of dormant rage, and a merciless mastermind. The writers have not only succeeded in creating a deliciously vindictive protagonist that viewers can root for, they also provided her with a formidable foe. Much like daytime soaps, the matriarch of the series goes to great lengths to protect her children from the world. But that's not the only component the series shares with soaps. The writers managed to take everything intriguing about a soap opera and make it darker. There might be secret gay lovers, con men, hitmen, husband-stealing best friends, long lost loves, and forbidden love, but it never seems over-the-top or melodramatic. And when it is, you crave it. At the beginning of the series, it was fun to wait and wonder how every little thing Emily did would eventually result in the destruction of one of her enemies. But now her airtight plan is starting to unravel, and it's become just as fun to see how quickly she thinks on her feet, how ruthless she is without giving herself enough time to come to terms with what she must do. Her determination is entrancing.
"New Girl" (FOX)
I'll admit. I was a bit quick to judge when I first saw this comedy series. I was especially hard on the resident douchebag Schmidt. However, in my defense, the series has changed considerably since the pilot. The token black guy (slash obligatory minority, after the "there's no black people in the 'Friends' universe debacle of '03") is played by a different actor and his character is less rage-driven. The douchebag jar is rarely used. Schmidt is considerably less unlikable. And Nick, the so-called love interest, isn't a basket case. The characters organically evolved the longer they became exposed to one another. Much like in real life, they took each other's advice and became better people for it. And while they grew and healed, they made me laugh my ass off. Honestly, of all the TV shows I wish I could step into Pleasentville-style, "New Girl" looks like the most fun. I wish I was there for whatever discussion led to them cooking a turkey in a dryer. I wish I was there to watch Jess try to pickup guys in a bar like a 1940s dame with her dress tucked into her underwear. I wish I was there to mess with Schmidt's Thanksgiving cooking "system." I wish I got roller skates for Christmas/Hannukah that I didn't know how to use but still decided to put on inside the apartment. And I definitely wish I was there to see Paul run and scream like a little girl when he found a dead old lady in the bathroom. These are heartwarming and hilarious moments you just don't get day-after-day in the real world. And they're with sincerely entertaining friends that are rarely as consistent in real life. That's why they're the new "Friends." Everyone who watches just wants to be apart of the gang.
"Suits" (USA Network)
There's this rumor that lawyers are the scum of the Earth. They lie, they manipulate, they coerce. They're criminals who know every loophole of the law. They're practically untouchable. As many legal procedurals there have been, including "The Good Wife," currently the best on TV right now, there has never been a series (to my knowledge) that's openly embraced the thrill of outsmarting another lawyer or dancing around the law. None that's openly manipulated the law for their own gain. "Suits" raises the stakes, because not only does it have two protagonists who are willing to break the law to do the right thing, but it introduces the possibility that all the good they've done can be undone by a single secret. That creeping thought makes every close call that much more suspenseful. And every case that much more interesting. The writers have also managed to spice up the way cases are won. Much like "The Good Wife," this series's lawyers think outside of the box and take unexpected chances. Perhaps it's misleading. No law career will ever be this fun. Unless of course the lawyer is a genius con artist who never went to law school. Then every day is an adventure.
"Episodes" (SHO)
British TV shows being adapted for American television has become so common that at this point it's just laughable. What makes it so funny is that there's pretty much a 98% guarantee that the series will suck. The creators of this series found the humor in that so appealing that they made an entire show about it. Relax. It's not like they're beating a dead horse. It's the premise, not a recurring joke. They've tapped into what it's like to be a creative foreigner who's seduced by Hollywood and all of its promises only to be rudely awoken by the reality of its inner-workings. As outsiders, we viewers, have heard rumors of development deals falling through or being cannibalized at the last minute. For the most part, we turn a blind eye until we see the final product. Exceptions to that rule are adaptations of beloved novels (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hunger Games, The Hobbit, etc.) and unnecessary remakes (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spider-Man, Superman, Oldboy, Ghostbusters, Footloose, Dirty Dancing, etc.). However, on occasion some Americans may have already seen the British version of a series and refuse to entertain the idea that an American version is even necessary, let alone can be done as well or even better. This series has fun with that belief, mocks American television, degrades American actors, and highlights the affect that Hollywood has on everyone—even intellectual imports. It's very much a series for fans of Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand, John Oliver, and every other foreign comedian who finds our society shockingly inept.
"2 Broke Girls" (CBS)
Many TV shows have logically integrated the current state of the economy into their storylines. The families on "The Middle" and "Raising Hope" spend every episode figuring out how to make due with less. The doctors on "Grey's Anatomy" faced budget cuts and mandatory downsizing. Both husbands on "How I Met Your Mother" and "Parenthood" struggled to find work in niche markets. And "Parks and Recreation" organized a huge fundraiser to save their department from becoming obsolete. But no series has managed to reflect how the economy is affecting the lives of young adults and recent graduates, until now. Without the financial support of their suddenly unemployed or economically anxious parents, or the promise of job security with every diploma, this generation has been forced to get creative with how they make their money. The traditional careers of doctor, lawyer, and teacher are no longer apart of the overall endgame. A lack of employment has surprisingly inspired a call for innovation, to not only supply consumers with the specific products they demand, from convenient apps to custom clothing, but also create jobs in the process. We're moving away from the generic and mass produced, and towards the artisanal. And this series is an interesting—while also often perverse, crass, and CBS-style goofy—look at the makings of an entrepreneurial endeavor. This is where it all starts. In the white ghetto of Brooklyn. At 2 a.m. Blood, sweat, and alcohol icing every single cupcake. One dime at a time. It's like an anthropological study with dirty jokes and hipster hateration.
"Up All Night" (NBC)
Back in the 00s, when shows like "Notes from the Underbelly" (2007) and "In the Motherhood" (2009) were testing the primetime waters for potential baby-centric TV shows after the success of Knocked Up and Baby Mama, I was onboard for parenting humor. I mean, who doesn't want to see two educated adults being driven crazy by a 10lb poop machine? Right? Right? Well apparently, America. That's who. Neither series made it. But it would appear that NBC learned from ABC's mistakes. Instead of focusing on the monotonous preparation of having a child or the quirky behavior of a group of moms, they grounded the series around this late-bloomers couple, who admittedly have no idea what they're doing but realistically handle every situation as any normal person would. There are plenty of parents who can't leave their kid alone with their insanely irresponsible friend. Plenty of parents who go apeshit with the Christmas decorations just to get a rise out of their kid. Plenty of parents who either feel like they're missing out on their kid's early years or are in dire need of a break from 24/7 baby duty. These are all relatable and yet realistically humorous scenarios that parents and future parents have and will experience. And what lures in those viewers who don't have baby-on-the-brain at the moment, besides the narcissistic and neurotic Ava's daily crises, is the underlying desire to stay cool even while driving a minivan and carrying a diaper bag. Because if there's one thing we can all agree on, it's that we never want to be as lame as our parents. (Side note: My parents were never lame and I still want to be cooler.)
"Suburgatory" (ABC)
Narration has long been a common storytelling technique. You'll find it in various forms on "How I Met Your Mother," "The Middle," "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy," "Gossip Girl," and technically "Burn Notice." And documentary-style shows like "The Office," "Parks and Recreation," and "Modern Family" use commentary as narration. But it's been a while since the narration has been done by a child. The best that I can remember are "Wonder Years" and "My So Called Life." Both of those shows were heralded for their intense look into the lives of adolescents and the tumultuous moments that were fueled by their "raging" hormones. I'm glad to see the trend returning with "Suburgatory." And I'm especially glad it's with the snarky, suburbs-hating, Daria-like character Tessa. It's one thing to tap into the whiny ramblings of a teenage girl. It's another when that girl is not only funny, but mature enough to be critical of the superficial and pathetic practices of everyday life. She's our id come to life.
"Pan Am" (ABC)
Trying to make the case that this is a feminist series about women who chose to travel the world and go on adventures instead of becoming trophy wives and stay-at-home moms may be a little far-fetched. The stewardess age limit, monthly weighings, form-fitting uniforms, marriage clause, and secretly acceptable sexual harassment sort of muddy that claim. But the series does succeed in capturing the time period, telling heart-wrenching backstories and love stories, and intriguing its viewers with Cold War espionage. I think if there was more sex and nudity or if the lead actors were all males, it would be a bigger hit. But I'm glad for once women are getting their stories told, that they're at the head of the action. Too often women are portrayed as passive and reactive. There's nothing realistic about women simply existing to chase men. Whether or not the series is canceled is still to be determined. For now, however, we can continue to enjoy the budding romances, the increasingly dangerous missions, and the everyday life of 1960s independent women.

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