Sunday, January 5, 2014

No Place Like Holmes: the year in review

FX reran my favorite Buffy episode the other morning, "No Place Like Home," and I had one of those "boy, remember when TV was good?" moments. And I suppose TV still is good, or I wouldn't be bothering with this blog, and perhaps as some say, it's better than ever, but man, there's so much about the current TV landscape that I don't understand.

the CBS implosion: The Good Wife, The Mentalist

2013 marks the year that I stopped watching The Good Wife -- just when it was garnering the most attention and acclaim. "Hitting the Fan" aired, and over the next few episodes, I found my interest waning and my frustration growing, and I bailed sometime during the first ten minutes of -- well, I'm not sure: was it "The Next Month," or the episode after it? At some point, I'm sure I'll start watching again, and I've saved the episodes I missed, but the fact that I don't even know where I left off is a mark of how much I soured on the series. And I'm hard-pressed to say why. I stuck with it when Alicia and Will's affair threatened to derail Season 3. I stuck with it when Kalinda's husband (or ex-husband?: I've worked hard to block it) did in fact derail the first half of Season 4. So why now, when it's by all accounts enjoying a creative resurgence, have I grown disenchanted? Maybe the constant barrage of dirty tricks and reversals of fortune wore me down. I found myself muttering "again?!" with every plot twist; it started to feel like the Kings were less interested in spinning a yarn than in setting traps for the viewer. As I watched Season 5, I could feel the show growing enamored of itself, indulging in a steady stream of "surprises" that seemed forced, predictable and occasionally juvenile -- I began to trust nothing, invest in nothing, because it was evident the rug was going to be pulled out from under me. I became nostalgic for the days when you were expected to commit to the narrative, not merely marvel at the sleights of hand.

Season to date, I've enjoyed The Mentalist more than The Good Wife -- where else will you see anyone assert that? But by focusing the first part of the season on wrapping up the Red John story-line, and by narrowing the list of suspects, the show successfully morphed from a whodunnit into a hunt. And although the ultimate reveal was a disappointment (not the identity of Red John -- I was fine with that -- but the Big Episode itself, which felt lackluster compared to what preceded it), it's continued to remake itself with its two-year time-leap, and it's more buoyant than it's been in ages. Shocking that CBS didn't decide to flip Hostages and The Mentalist once the former show stumbled so badly out of the gate, but who can explain anything CBS is doing this season?

(Alas, poor CBS. Down -- what? -- some 4 or 5 or 6% from last season, and without the Super Bowl to shore up its ratings this year, it's sure to tumble even further. Who could have predicted Hostages would tank the way it did? I mean, I tuned out after episode three, because it was preposterous, but isn't it odd that no one tuned it to start? That no one wanted to sample Mom despite all the pre-season buzz? That Elementary would tumble so badly in Season 2? That Person of Interest would shed so many viewers moving from a 9 PM to a 10 PM slot? I mean, some of CBS's woes were predictable. Whoever thought 2 Broke Girls strong enough to be a 9 PM tentpole, especially with Michael Patrick King obviously resistant to the supporting-cast overhaul it so desperately needs? Whoever thought placing the filmed Crazy Ones between the multi-cam Millers and Two and a Half Men made for a good flow? But CBS has had a lousy season across the board: from first place last season to -- what can we hope for? -- third place this season?)

drama round-up: Breaking Bad, The Killing, Elementary

But let's get back to the shows themselves, and not just the ones on CBS, although God knows, I still (as I've been doing since the early '70s) watch more on CBS than on any other network. I liked a lot of television I saw this past year, especially the imports: The Fall and The Returned and Dancing on the Edge. But I guess, first, I need to devote a little space to Breaking Bad. You know Breaking Bad: "the best show ever on television." It's not bloggers who said that: professional critics said it, credible media and news personalities said it. Does no one get that in order to call something "the best TV show ever," you actually have to have watched every TV show ever?

But quite aside from that, Breaking Bad the "best ever" -- really? Breaking Bad was a very good show -- almost always diverting, and sometimes riveting -- but let's not pretend it was perfect. I found large chunks of Season 3 slow and frustrating until they started the wind-up to the season finale -- and it seemed clear the writers were aware of those issues, since they made so many course corrections in Season 4. And Season 5 often felt like it was treading water till the midseason cliffhanger. (Season 5 also suffered from too many writer-producers making their directorial debuts; I couldn't believe how many times we were subjected to shots from inside a safety deposit box looking out, or inside a chemical vat looking out -- what Reverse Shot, in its Twenty Shots to Be Henceforth Retired from Film Vocabulary, rightly tags "bush league My First Creative Camerawork shit.") The hype over Breaking Bad extended to a discussion of its ratings, which people seemed to forget were middling-to-moderate until they exploded during the final season because of all the new viewers who had binge-watched on Netflix. But you read articles now about Breaking Bad, and it's astounding how many assert that it was a runaway hit from the start; I suspect it's a lot of the same people who think it's the "best" blah blah blah "ever on television." If I'm looking for a gripping blend of high art and popular art, I'll take Buffy Season 5 over Breaking Bad Season 5. If I'm looking for a heady brew of boardroom and bedroom trash, I'll take Knots Landing Season 5 over The Good Wife Season 5. Maybe, as I've gotten older, I've grown immune or resistant to shows that parade their aspirations and acclaim like medals.

The best hour of TV I saw this past year was The Killing episode entitled "Six Minutes," essentially a two-hander (Mireille Enos and Peter Sarsgaard: both shattering) about the hours leading up to an execution. From the viewer comments I saw online, I know lots of folks were left as shaken as I was; I checked out all the major TV columns after it aired, thinking everyone would review it, or at least acknowledge it, but reviews were shockingly scarce. I mean, you had to go to the reliable Phil Dyess-Nugent at The A.V. Club or Matt LeMaire at The MacGuffin for a reasoned response and some thoughtful prose. Sure, it was the week of the CBS Summer Press Tour, but I was still flabbergasted that some critics I deeply admire couldn't take ten minutes to write it up.

But of course The Killing is no longer "buzz-worthy." Neither, for that matter, is my favorite show currently on the air, Elementary. Kudos to Robert Bianco for regularly plugging it at USA Today, but this wonderful series -- far better, to my mind, than its over-hyped, smug UK counterpart -- gets so much less praise than it deserves (whereas the news that Sherlock was starting up again was greeted like news of the Second Coming). I'm as shocked as the next person how good I find Elementary; like many, I expected a shameless Sherlock rip-off, and had my doubts about Lucy Liu. (She had endured in my mind mostly as a Mad TV punchline.) But I should have trusted Rob Doherty, who never let me down through his years on Medium. After a solid if unimpressive start, it steadily improved and deepened through Season 1. Part absorbing character study, part sturdy procedural, it's further enlivened by the crackling chemistry between its two leads. Doherty has avoided the potential pitfalls of transplanting Sherlock Holmes to modern-day New York; far from it: he's used the setting to inform the character. A superior November episode, "The Marchioness," opened with Sherlock addressing his Narcotics Anonymous support group with uncharacteristic wistfulness:

"I often wonder if I should have been born in another time. My senses are unusually -- what one could even say unnaturally -- keen. And ours is an era of distraction -- it's a punishing drumbeat of constant input. This cacophony which follows us into our homes and into our beds, it seeps into our -- into our souls, for want of a better word. For a long time, there was only one poultice for my raw nerve endings, and that was copious drug use. So in my less productive moments, I'm given to wonder: if I'd just been born when it was a little quieter out there, would I have even become an addict in the first place? Might I have been more focused, a more fully realized person?"

And that's the particular genius of Doherty's Elementary -- it is in fact the anti-Sherlock. Outfitting and surrounding Doyle's late-Victorian creation with the wonders of modern technology doesn't simply make him more diabolically clever -- it also makes him as tortured and stressed, as angry and isolated and overwhelmed as those eight million other New Yorkers -- and then as stunned when he stumbles into a new friendship that helps him heal. Articles like Ian Grey's Elementary and the Holmes Tradition and this splendid review from Myles McNutt at the A.V. Club about last Thursday's season highlight (scripted by Doherty and his old writing crony Craig Sweeny) have reminded me that I'm not alone in my infatuation. (Actually, I think my favorite online article was Sabienna Bowman's Why I Want to Life Swap with Joan Watson. ) But of course, while Sherlock garnered all-time high ratings for its recent UK premiere, what did Elementary manage last Thursday night in the fast nationals?: a mere 1.8. I don't get viewers at all.

sitcom round-up: The Big Bang Theory, Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly

As Elementary continues to soar, The Big Bang Theory has returned, this past fall, to where it was in Season 5: coasting on good will and momentum. Is it only a matter of time until it's running on fumes? There's hardly been an episode this past fall that impressed me, whereas there was hardly an episode last spring that didn't. But last spring, it was evident how new showrunner Steve Molaro was energizing the show, the same way the show felt invigorated throughout Season 2, as the writers figured out what they had in Jim Parsons, and reinvigorated in the second half of Season 4, when the addition of Mayim Bialik, Melissa Rauch and Aarti Mann to the cast shuffled the dynamics. And Two and a Half Men, which I praised last May, has become nearly unwatchable. Ashton Kutcher was used so well during his second season; now it's like they've forgotten how to write for him. Whole episodes pass while he sits on the sidelines. (But then, it's not as bad as Conchata Ferrell, who's reduced to one-line crossovers; it's like poor Adrienne Barbeau during the final seasons of Maude, when you'd only see her coming down the stairs or heading out the door.) Yah, yah, they wanted to restore some of that Charlie Harper energy to Two and a Half Men, so they gave us Charlie's long-lost daughter and her nonstop womanizing. But the show had moved beyond Sheen, and successfully reinvented itself. Now invention is, once again, sorely lacking.

Ashton Kutcher now seems trapped where Melissa McCarthy was during Season 3 of Mike and Molly: on the sidelines, reacting to all the crazies, without a plotline in sight. Look, I liked the first season of Mike and Molly, despite the cheap laughs, and thought the second season, more character-focused, was a huge improvement. But there's no doubt that (now-defunct) showrunner Mark Roberts ran it off the rails in Season 3. After hitting a creative high late in Season 2 (with "The Dress," rightly McCarthy's Emmy reel that year), the show didn't produce one keeper during Season 3. And poor McCarthy, so versatile and so appealing, was reduced to a season-long look of pained discomfort. So good for Chuck Lorre for shaking things up with (as CBS so-subtly put it) The New Mike and Molly, and although I'm not convinced they've fully found their way yet (I like Molly the free spirit; I don't like Molly the dunce), this new season has yielded more genuine belly-laughs than the previous three combined. It's also very well paired with Lorre's new show Mom, which, like The New Mike and Molly, is still finding its footing, although when the comedy lands (mostly when Anna Faris and Allison Janney are going at it), it's a hoot. Best sitcom episode I saw in 2013? Well, I thought it was Bob Newhart's first appearance on The Big Bang Theory, "The Proton Resurgence," but when I resaw it recently on TBS, it fell flatter than I expected. So I'm going with Mom's "Six Thousand Bootleg T-Shirts and a Prada Handbag," guest starring Octavia Spencer.

Then again, the funniest episode of TV I saw this past year wasn't a sitcom at all: it was the NCIS: Los Angeles "The Livelong Day," with Kensi and Deeks undercover as FRA agents, and Eric Christian Olsen doing a spot-on impression of Matthew Gray Gubler in Criminal Minds. And second place probably goes to a small-screen spoof that never even made it to TV: the uproarious Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, Peter Davison's deft companion piece to the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special. When your best laughs of the year are found in a one-hour procedural and a web-only one-off, you know you're not witnessing a Golden Age of television comedy.

nostalgia viewing: WKRP in Cincinnati, Newhart

We have five TVs in our home, and one has TiVo, four have DVR's and two have Apple TV, so there was a lot of television viewing going on this past year. Among the highlights: the Swedish Wallander (highly recommended, particularly, the first series: the second series was a little bleak for my tastes) and Series 3 and 4 of MI-5. I had occasion to watch a lot of vintage TV as well, and was reminded -- to my surprise -- how uneven WKRP was, but how much I love writer Blake Hunter. (Put Hunter on a Loni Anderson episode, like "Jennifer and the Will," and he'll make magic. Heck, just give him a few moments with Anderson, like this quick bit when the station is unionizing, and Johnny Fever invites her to join them: "Johnny, I already belong to a union. It's a quasi-religious group called the International Sisterhood of Blond Receptionists. There are only twelve members in the world. We meet once every two years in Switzerland. If I told you our minimum salary, you'd have a heart attack and die. Bye.") And then there's Newhart, that fabulous fruitcake of a series that stalled on DVD with Season 1. (It's the videotaped season with Jennifer Holmes and Steven Kampmann that no one wants to see: I get that the studios want to release series in order, but when you have a show that was overhauled after Season 1, and didn't find its groove till Season 4, were you really expecting huge sales for the first-season release? It's like the dimwits who decided to put out Knots Landing Seasons 1 and 2, and when they didn't sell, pulled the plug; the show didn't start to pick up steam till Season 3 -- that's the season everyone wanted on DVD, and it's now the season no one's getting.)

Watching Newhart this past year on the Christian-based Family Network (they're also the ones showing WKRP; if they think WKRP is peddling traditional family values, the joke's on them), I was reminded again how much I love Season 7, under new showrunners Mark Egan and Mark Solomon. How often does a show hit its creative peak in Season 7? It's the Michael-Harris-breakdown season, and as brilliant as Peter Scolari is that year (and Newhart, Tom Poston and Julia Duffy are also at the top of their game), it's the re-emergence of Mary Frann that's the most fun to watch. The previous showrunners must have hated her; reduced to set-dressing, she'd go whole episodes without a decent line, or they'd do "special episodes" spotlighting the regular cast (e.g., "A Midseason Night's Dream") and ignore her. Egan and Solomon get Joanna Loudon: they see that she's, in her own way, as much of a loon as everyone else in that small Vermont town -- the innkeeper is running the asylum. Frann was the only Newhart regular never to receive an Emmy nomination (her co-stars all had multiple nods), so it's a little daring where Egan and Solomon turn for laughs: they play up Joanna's need for attention and acceptance. It could have come off as cruel -- us not knowing where Joanna began and Frann left off -- but instead, it's inspired: it taps into Frann's comedic strengths, and gives Newhart another crazy to play off of. And Frann looks so pleased to be trading quips with the rest of the cast that her pleasure is contagious. (You can hear it in the audience response, which is not only amused but surprised: they don't expect her to be funny.) Here's Dick and Joanna after a society snob who's looking to acquire property (Joanna moonlights as a real estate agent) has offered them a million-five for their own inn:

Dick: "I know it's a lot of money, but I don't know if I can bring myself to sell this place."
Joanna: "If we did, we'd be set for life. And do you have any idea what my commission would be?"
Dick: "Joanna, the seller pays the commission. You'd be paying yourself."
Joanna: "Who cares? The important thing is, it'll put me in the million-dollar bracket at the office. I'll get a pin!"
Dick: "Oh well, let's dump this place if it means your getting a pin..."

Suddenly they're Burns and Allen.

Season 7 of Newhart has many highlights -- among them, "Hi, Society" (in which Dick and Stephanie attend a swanky New York party, and Dick -- introduced as "Sir Richard Loudon" -- becomes an instant snob), "The Nice Man Cometh" (with Don Rickles as a new talk-show host hired by WPIV, who seizes upon Dick as his stooge), and "The One and a Half Million Dollar Man" (a jobless, penniless Michael tries to find work as a mime, leading to a showdown with Stephanie at their favorite restaurant) -- but I think my favorite episode may be "Homes and Jo-Jo," in which the new station owner of WPIV offers Joanna her own real estate show, "Your House Is My House," but, in the quest for ratings, turns it into the salacious "Hot Houses." (Stephanie commenting on Joanna's first episode: "After Joanna's flesh act, I had to take a ritual purification bath." Joanna: "I was selling real estate." George: "It was hard to say what you were selling.") It was so common -- and too easy -- for critics in the '80s to reduce Frann to "she's no Suzanne Pleshette." No, she wasn't: did she have to be? Forget recasts from Dick Sargent on, I think Mary Frann had the toughest shoes to fill, and she could never catch a break. Until Season 7. And although it's said that the famous series ender (with Pleshette returning for a now-classic cameo) irked her, the late, underrated Frann -- that "beautiful blonde" -- really had the last laugh, with the last line of the last show ("You know, you really ought to wear more sweaters") being all about her.

The Newhart finale aired in 1990: that season, CBS ran a three-hour Monday night comedy block consisting of Major Dad, The Famous Teddy Z, Murphy Brown, Designing Women, Newhart and Doctor Doctor. Three classics, and not a rotten egg in the bunch. This fall, before Mike and Molly came back in November to shore up its Monday night line-up, and before Mom started to find its way, CBS's biggest Monday night laughs came during Hostages, and those were presumably unintentional. It's been an odd season to date.

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