Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life Death

"The whole journalism thing didn't really pan out the way I hoped." -- Rory Gilmore

If I hadn't already been hating Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, that one line alone (in the final episode) would have made me hate it. "The whole journalism thing" -- you remember that, right? The passion for reporting that had consumed Rory, as we understood it, even before the series began. Her resolve to become the next Christiane Amanpour. Her accepting menial assignments at the Yale Daily News just to get her foot in the door, and her eventually rising to Editor-in-Chief. Her job offer from the Providence Journal-Bulletin, which she turned down in hopes of a prestigious fellowship at The New York Times. Her despair when not only the Times rejected her, but a host of other newspapers, and then her triumphant rise from the ashes when an online magazine asked her to cover Senator Barack Obama's nascent Presidential campaign. You remember all that, right?

Well, joke's on you. It turns out Rory's lifelong desire to be a journalist wasn't a passion. It wasn't a calling. It was just a "thing."

Friday, November 4, 2016

Knots Landing season 11

In the days before the internet and social media, there was little uproar when a good show went bad. No fanzines started ragging on it regularly; no bloggers started penning "whatever happened to" posts -- and if the ratings took a simultaneous tumble, there were no online number-crunchers wondering how long it would take before the network staged a sit-down with the showrunner. If a long-running series took a wrong turn, viewers simply waited it out. The mea culpa that Knots Landing creator David Jacobs offered up seven episodes into Season 13 was rare for the time -- an Executive Producer admitting his show had lost its way and asking for another chance -- but he had no choice but to go public: the show was shutting down production to bring in a new headwriter. Word was bound to get out. But that sort of exchange between the creative team and the audience has since become commonplace. Nowadays, a half-season of subpar episodes or sliding ratings, and the showrunner will be out talking to the fans, assuring them he's "making adjustments." Some network honcho will take to the Television Critics Association, to let them know that the situation is under control; the show will soon be "back on track."

If Season 11 of Knots Landing aired today, then midway through the season, there no doubt would be outcries from fandom about how dark and dreary the series had become, and gurus would be swift to note that its ratings had declined dramatically from the previous season. And viewers would be assured that changes were on the way. And when people, in the far future, spoke about Knots Landing Season 11, they probably would divide the season into two parts -- maybe Season 11A and 11B -- to delineate the point where it "got good again." Because the truth is, it's hard to view Knots Landing Season 11 as one season. Earlier seasons have course corrections, but they're more subtle. The one that Season 11 undergoes, two-thirds of the way through, is mammoth. A half-dozen characters added; a half-dozen characters jettisoned. Stories that seemed designed to dominate the season wrapped up without explanation; new plotlines introduced at the drop of a hat. The salvage job that showrunners and headwriters Bernard Lechowick and Lynn Marie Latham perform at the start of the third (and final) block of Knots Landing Season 11 is nothing short of amazing; it absolutely rescues the season. But perhaps as interesting as the salvage job itself is what got them there in the first place.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years (part 3)

The conclusion of my latest Doctor Who three-parter: reflections on the William Hartnell years. You can read my overview of the era here, and my initial countdown of favorite serials -- #10 through #6 -- here. What follows are my top-5 First Doctor serials.

As you'll see (and as you'll probably expect if you've read any of my other blog entries), my top Hartnells don't necessarily include the most acclaimed or seminal serials. Certainly one celebrated story is conspicuously absent: "The Aztecs." I simply don't feel the enthusiasm for it that I feel for the others on my list, and for me, it's more worthy for what it represents (the first surviving historical) than for what it actually achieves. But as I noted when I began counting down my favorite Hartnells, there are very few First Doctor serials I actively loathe; even the ones of which I'm not especially fond have premises I respect (e.g., "The Space Museum") or individual episodes I enjoy ("The Keys of Marinus," "The Daleks"). In fact, I think the only Hartnell I can't stand, top to bottom, is "The Reign of Terror." But most of the Hartnell era I consider a joy: sometimes just for the aspiration, but often for the execution as well.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years (part 2)

Part 2 of my loving look at the First Doctor era, beginning a countdown of my top ten serials. It's worth my noting that even with Hartnell serials I don't particularly care for, there's often an episode or two I genuinely enjoy (e.g., Episode 2 of "The Keys of Marinus," the first two episodes of "The Dalek Invasion of Earth," Episodes 1 & 3 of "The Chase"). There's hardly a serial I wholly dislike. Thus, my proclaiming the Hartnell years one of my favorite eras of Doctor Who.

#10. The Gunfighters
written by Donald Cotton
directed by Rex Tucker

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Doctor Who: The William Hartnell Years

I love the William Hartnell era of Doctor Who. It's probably my second favorite era of Classic Who, as my latest rewatch reminded me. It's not that I find the serials themselves consistently strong -- I suspect I like maybe 50% of Classic Who, and the Hartnell era is no exception. (In fact, I don't really like the first season much at all.) And although I'm fond of Hartnell himself, I don't respond to him as an actor the way I do Troughton or Davison. It's the spirit of the Hartnell era that gets to me: it's everything I want Who to be. It's daring. It's unpredictable. It's a show eager to explore its potential and defy its limitations: to challenge itself and its audience's expectations. It never strives or settles for a "formula," except the one that serves as the show's premise: the sheer wonder of traveling through time and space, without ever knowing what your next destination might be.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Judging Amy season 6

"I reject the notion that there is such a thing as an irredeemable child."
-- Judge Amy Gray, Judging Amy Season 6

Judging Amy premiered on CBS in the fall of 1999. It aired Tuesdays at 10, a perennial problem spot for the network; their last hit series there had been The Garry Moore Show in 1964. For thirty-five years, they'd been filling the timeslot with news magazines, or the second half of a two-hour movie; occasionally, they'd order up a new drama, which would stumble out of the gate (anyone remember Island Son, Dellaventura or Four Corners?), and back would come the CBS Tuesday Night Movie. But audiences who had taken to Amy Brenneman in her Emmy-nominated role on NYPD Blue found themselves once again in love with Amy. The series premiered to critical carping (an outwardly similar show, Providence, had debuted the previous winter, and critics were content to dismiss Amy as derivative), but audiences knew better. Even if they didn't recognize quite how original it was (and it was), they knew how engaging it was. It ran for six seasons, securing a host of Emmy and Golden Globe nominations and one win.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Knots Landing season 7

Over its fourteen seasons, Knots Landing saw its share of soft reboots and wholesale revamps. Sometimes they occurred at the start of a season, as new headwriters took the reins and charted their own course for the series; sometimes they happened mid-season, as story-lines deemed unsuccessful were jettisoned and new ones quickly devised. But for three seasons -- 5 through 7 -- Knots maintained unparalleled stability in terms of its principal cast and story arcs.

Season 5, Knots' best season, is a dizzying display of confident story-telling that builds to an adrenaline-rush conclusion. Season 6 suffers from a static start and a noticeable tonal shift two-thirds of the way through, but it's blessed with a middle section -- an acting showcase for co-star Joan Van Ark -- that's at once novelette-ish flight of fancy and piercing character drama, and that sees you through. So if you're a fan of Knots Landing Seasons 5 and 6, you should -- by all outward appearances -- love Season 7; in many ways, the three seasons form one long arc. The cast remains intact; all the Season 6 principals stick around for Season 7. The characters who are romantically paired in Season 5 -- author Valene Ewing and reporter Ben Gibson, real estate whiz Laura Avery and politician-turned-tycoon Gregory Sumner -- finally tie the knot in Season 7, while the one Season 5 marriage -- that of hapless millionaire Gary Ewing to aspiring businesswoman Abby Cunningham -- eventually runs its course. The plots left hanging in Season 6 -- the turbulent relationship between newlyweds Joshua Rush and Cathy Geary; Gary's plans to turn his newly-acquired Empire Valley acreage into "a community of the future" (all while Greg and Abby conspire to build a secret communications center beneath it); the hunt for Val's twins (the result of a one-night stand with Gary in Season 5) who were stolen at birth early in Season 6 -- all continue into Season 7, and most are tidily resolved.

So what's not to like about Season 7?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders (part 2)

Following CBS's cancellation of Limitless last month, I decided to look at ten great shows that were canned after one season. I intended to limit this post to shows that came out of the gate fully formed (like Limitless), that had solid first-season runs. But I realized that if I were discussing "one-season wonders," then just as wondrous were the shows that took time to get their bearings -- often much of their first season. Sometimes, that feels like the greater loss: when a show is trying diligently to refine itself during its early months, to tap into what's working and discard what isn't, and then, just as it seems to be coming into its own, it's gone. Everybody Loves Raymond was certainly a show that took almost a season to fully distinguish itself, to learn how best to use the family dynamics to mine laughs; can you imagine if CBS hadn't rewarded it with faith, patience, a better time slot and (ultimately) a renewal? Anyway, my first five one-season wonders can be found here; here are the final five:

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders

CBS cancelled Limitless last week; there goes another great TV series, jettisoned after one season. The network seemed to lose interest early on; they never tried a new timeslot to see if a more compatible lead-in might boost its ratings. (Mondays at 10 PM, after Scorpion, seemed a good option.) And ironically, the serialized elements that the network itself had encouraged made it less valuable to them in syndication than their more static procedurals, Code Black and Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders, both of which got second-season pick-ups. Limitless's cancellation got me thinking of other worthy shows that disappeared after one season: shows with unexplored potential that seemed, well, limitless. Ten instantly came to mind; here are the first five. If you've read any of my blog entries, you know this list probably won't match anyone else's; my tastes remain emphatically, occasionally erratically, my own. (You also won't find Limitless on this list -- but only because I discussed it, and its brain-twisty brilliance, last November. It's a post entitled "Welcome Home, CBS," written at a time when I thought the network was finally reinventing itself with novel programming; now that it's prematurely cancelled both Mike & Molly and Limitless in the same season, I find myself watching less on CBS than at any point since the late '60s.)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Knots Landing season 9

In the beginning, Knots Landing was about four married couples living in a cul-de-sac in Southern California. But as the show grew in popularity, it grew in size, and by the seventh season, there were eleven in the principal cast. The show was riding high in the ratings, so CBS happily assumed a laissez-faire attitude. But then the network got greedy: at the start of Season 8, they decided to move Knots up an hour, so they could launch a new show behind it. (It's a move that hadn't worked in Season 3, but apparently the network programmers had short memories.) So up it went to Thursday at 9 PM, where it faced off against the formidable Cheers and Night Court on NBC, and against ABC's new Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys. Knots star Joan Van Ark predicted, in a bit of pre-season forecasting, "We're gonna whoop The Colbys" -- but it was Knots that took the drubbing. Oh, it beat The Colbys, and rather handily, but it shed a third of its viewers in the process. And its absence from the 10 PM slot allowed a new NBC upstart called L.A. Law to take over and dominate the time period -- so that even when CBS admitted the error of its ways and moved Knots back to its old home, it never regained its audience. While it was away, L.A. Law had blossomed into a mega-hit, and Knots was relegated to runner-up in the timeslot it once owned.

And so, the following season, instead of the Knots writers being allowed to expand the cast however they saw fit, a decree came down from the network brass: trim the budget. And by the time we were a third of the way into Season 9, there were just six principal cast members remaining.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Farewell, Flash. Adios, Arrow:
When Shows Jump the (King) Shark

How bad does a show have to get before you bail? I'm 56 now. My earliest television memory is an episode of Lost in Space called "The Keeper" from January of 1966 (the day after it aired, all the kids in the neighborhood took turns walking around as if hypnotized, repeating "I'm being summoned," as Dr. Smith had the night before) -- so I guess I've been a devoted TV viewer for half a century now. In the old days, if a show you loved got rotten, you kept watching; there were only three channels, and unless there was something compelling on one of the other two, you stuck with your show through even the dreariest lows. But today, chances are, there are more shows that interest you than hours in the day: not just those airing weekly on network television, but streaming series with dozens of episodes instantly available. How do you stick with a show through the dry patches when you know your viewing time could be put to better use: when there's that show on iPlayer or On Demand that's going to be disappearing soon, or that series from thirty years ago that you'd always heard about, that someone just uploaded to YouTube and might vanish any day due to copyright infringement?

The Flash and Arrow return to the air this week, after a four-week hiatus, and I'll no longer be watching. I made up my mind after their last airings that it was time to let go: over time, they'd managed to both bore me and offend me. (You'd think indifference would numb you to feeling actively insulted, but no.) And watching another comic-book adaptation, Agent Carter, which aired from January through March and basically got everything right, only further reminded me how much The Flash and Arrow were suffering creatively.

But letting go of The Flash and Arrow fills me with mixed emotions. They're the kind of shows I should love; I'm one of their target audiences. I was raised on DC Comics, and read them faithfully from the '60s to the mid-'80s, and resumed when they launched the New 52 in 2011. So in some ways, those shows are dearer to me than others I've dropped. I dumped Dallas and Falcon Crest in the same week in 1988, but that was easy: I had no real attachment. More recently, I let go of a slew of series: Survivor after twenty-seven seasons; Criminal Minds after nine. The former had simply worn me down; I couldn't regain the enthusiasm I'd once had -- I found myself more eager to go to Hulu and revisit Parvati and Cirie in Micronesia. And Criminal Minds -- well, I felt betrayed. It had added the marvelous Jeanne Tripplehorn to its principal cast, and then disposed of her after two seasons, with no explanation for her departure. Did the actress want out? Or did the network want her out, so they could bring in a younger actress to shore up the almighty 18-49 demo (which is just what they did)? Since no press release went out, even the curt, standard one you don't even believe, but accept with some degree of grace ("Ms. Tripplehorn only signed for two years, and has decided to move on to other ventures"), one can only presume CBS dumped her -- the likeliest scenario, since her airtime had been shrinking dramatically during her final months on the show. For me, the axing of Tripplehorn was a terrible move, dreadfully handled, and it drove me away.

In this day and age, when there's so much to watch, shows make me angry in ways they never used to: "You're trying my patience," I think -- or worse, "You're wasting my time." There are hundreds of shows vying for my attention: do better. The Good Wife inspired those feelings repeatedly after its first three seasons. Early in Season 5, when Alicia left Lockhart-Gardner to start her own law firm, and the show was garnering the most acclaim it had ever enjoyed, I jumped ship. I found the story-lines contrived and repetitive. (How many ways could the writers manage to put the two firms on opposing sides of the same case?) And juvenile! My God: there was the charismatic Jason O'Mara, added to the cast so he could -- steal furniture? But would I have quit watching if creators Robert and Michelle King hadn't already squandered the audience's trust? In season 4, they penned an awful storyline in which Kalinda's (smarmy) estranged husband Nick appeared on the scene. It was dismally conceived and abominably written -- and when the Kings pulled the plug on the storyline, well before they had intended to, they blamed the viewers. "Some characters you actually don't want to see that much backstory," they said in interviews. "People just don't want Kalinda to go there. This was not a place where the audience wanted to go.” No, the place we didn't want to go was into the bowels of a bad story-line, with paper-thin characterizations and gratuitous sex and violence. Deflecting blame anywhere they could, the Kings even went so far as to blame the actor playing Nick (Marc Warren, a brilliant actor who was handed such drivel, it was impossible to tell he was a brilliant actor) for being so dynamic that he drove the audience away. Michelle King: "Everyone is agreeing that he's doing a fantastic job portraying the character: in fact, maybe so fantastic that people are upset that Kalinda would be connected to that." That is the most novel excuse I've ever heard for why a story-line isn't working: the actor is too good.

The shamelessness of showrunners -- blaming audiences and actors for the failings of their own storylines -- is a new development (and ironically, they're doing it at a time when they can least afford to alienate their audiences). In the old days, if the headwriters screwed up, they did a mea culpa. After Bobby Ewing was killed off Dallas, and Patrick Duffy was persuaded to return a season later, Leonard Katzman devised the whole "Bobby in the shower" dream scenario -- effectively wiping out an entire bad season with an apology -- and viewers were quick to succumb. (The move has become a punchline now, but it's worth remembering that it restored both ratings and quality. "The storylines last season were awful, and we know it," it assured us. "Let's pretend they never happened. Forgiven?" And we forgave.) For Season 13 of Knots Landing, creator David Jacobs hired a new writing/producing team, and after fifteen dreadful episodes, he canned them and shut down production. He went public, apologizing for the fiasco, and smartly hired one of the best writers in the business to salvage the show (which she did). Now when a show goes off the rails, it's our fault. So I quit The Good Wife for a spell, ultimately fast-forwarding through a half-dozen episodes until it regained my interest. I was there when they killed off Josh Charles's Will Gardner, and I was there through the remainder of Season 5. And then Season 6 started, and within a few episodes, I was ready to call a halt once more, and did -- this time for good. The storylines again felt static, but more important, a new show had come along that quenched my thirst for adult character drama: Madam Secretary. You lose my trust and confidence these days, it's perilously easy for me to bail; there's probably another show nearby that fills my viewing needs.

As a footnote, the Kings continued their reign of viewer terror; their ongoing duplicity and arrogance made me glad I'd left. Julianna Margulies and Archie Panjabi hadn't shared a scene together in almost three years -- clearly due to some unresolvable personal issue -- when Panjabi departed the show at the end of Season 6. Viewers were promised that the two would appear together in her final episode, to properly button their relationship. And when the scene aired, it was evident that the actresses had taped their lines separately, and it had been spliced together in the editing room. In an interview with the creators, columnist Michael Ausiello noted that he wasn't digging for dirt -- whatever the reason for the friction wasn't his concern -- he simply wanted to know if keeping the actresses apart all those years had impacted stories. And instead of saying something simple like, "There were obviously personal issues, but we tried not to let it affect the writing," the Kings went on the offensive, as if shooting actors separately, then splicing them together, were standard practice: "We’re making the show every day using tricks, like if you’re in a car and there’s green screen and it looks like Chicago out the window but that’s not exactly where we are." (That's an actual quote.) And if the tone of condescension wasn't clear enough, Michelle King chose to deflect the question back to Josh Charles's departure the previous season, to hammer home that the show was fiction, and we shouldn't question anything about it: "Just so we’re clear, Josh wasn’t really killed [when his character Will Gardner died]. We faked those gunshots. We fake everything in the show, so I can address this on a storytelling level that there was no intent ever to dupe the viewers." And readers were rightfully outraged: "Treating your viewers like sheep or downright idiots ('we didn’t kill the actor') is the worst thing to do, and only proves that whatever humility was there in the beginning is now gone." And "the snarkiness was uncalled for and inappropriate, and insults the fan base they rely on for their show’s success. Shame on them." And my favorite: "I am done with the show, and I will demonstrate my disappointment by no longer being involved. I know my changing the channel won’t influence the ratings an iota; however, it will make a big difference for me."

"It will make a big difference for me."

These days, there are too many viewing options: don't try my patience. Don't come out swinging in defense of a bad story-line; I'm here armed, remote in hand. It won't make one bit of difference to the ratings of The Flash and Arrow that I am not watching this week, but it'll make a big difference to me.

So why Flash and Arrow? Why now?

When did Flash stop being good? In truth, I'm not sure it ever was good. Oh sure, I found the pilot amiable. But right from the start, the metahuman-of-the-week format started to feel limiting, and as the season progressed, logic seemed to take a back seat to action. I wrote last August that the show had already "devolved into the kind of lazy shorthand that requires characters to act stupid in order to generate story," as in "Let's put the shape-shifting metahuman in the back of my car and drive him to the police station. What could go wrong?" But so much else rankled. The torn-between-two-men contrivances of the Iris West storyline made her unsympathetic; the sight of a drunken Caitlin coming on to Barry made her pitiful and pathetic. Greg Berlanti's hit factory doesn't have a great track record for writing strong women -- they're better at writing strong, shirtless men -- but these two were in a disaster class all their own. And for me, the Season 1 finale exposed an indolence at the show's core. The set-up: the Flash is going to go back in time, to prevent his mother's death. And he's warned that by changing the time stream, any and all events could be altered, probably dramatically, possibly calamitously. His colleagues, huddled around him, are told that their own rebooted lives could play out totally differently: possibly for the (far) worse. So should he do it, knowing he's putting all their lives in some sort of jeopardy? Sure, they tell him in unison: go for it. Save your mother. You're the hero. It was the kind of lazy writing I find most irritating: everyone agrees, because that's the easiest way to script it. Could one person have expressed disdain for the plan? Caitlin was about to wed the man she loved -- but sure, Barry, if you want to rewrite my history, it's fine; the show is named after you, after all. So they all nodded their heads and went along with him, like he was Maria teaching the dutiful Von Trapp children to sing.

But the absurdities didn't stop there. Barry wondered if he could really break through the time barrier -- "Do you think I'm fast enough," he asked his faux-father Joe -- and Joe responded, "Yes, I know you are." Based on what? Instinct? This isn't your kid racing in the high-school track meet, wondering if he has a shot at winning; in that scenario, worst case -- oh, I don't know: he loses. This is end-of-the-world stuff. But it was the start of an awful development on The Flash: the vapid pep talks. Because after Joe assured Barry that he could run fast enough, he admitted, "I don't think I can lose you," and it was Barry's turn: "You won't ever lose me. Ever, you hear me? Ever." Trust me when I say, the best empty assurances repeat the same word three times. (Three times. Three.) This, for me, was the beginning of the descent of The Flash -- and the abrupt, callous disposal of Barry's father in the following episode (his whole story-line, which had dominated Season 1, turned out to be a MacGuffin) was the next nail in the coffin. And then the tackiest tropes started dominating. Barry: "We need a machine that can do X-Y-Z." Cisco: "It'll take me 20 minutes." It became laughable how quickly boy genius Cisco could construct seemingly anything. And then, at one point last fall, the writers outdid themselves. Barry came in requesting some contraption, and Cisco announced that, "as some of you may well know," he'd already been working on it for months, and it was nearly ready. It was preposterous meta-story-telling: like Cisco had been in the writers' room while they were breaking story: "I know it's only episode 6, but I'm working on something you'll need in episode 9."

And then there's Tom Cavanagh. As I've noted before, I'm not a fan of his work on The Flash. I hear he excels at light comedy; someday, I'll take a look at Ed and (apparently) see how capable he is. But the Harrison Wells of Season 1 was a mismatch of actor and role: whatever Cavanagh does well, quiet malice is not it. Enigmatic is not his strong suit. I breathed a sigh of relief when he was killed off at the end of Season 1. But if at first you don't succeed, try, try the viewer's patience again. They revived him as a new character in Season 2, a father passionately fighting for his daughter's life -- and there were moments so melodramatic that I cringed. (And then he started to have ready-made inventions. "Cisco, having trouble controlling your visions? Wear this.") There were two great characters introduced in Season 2, right out of the comic books -- police detective Patty Spivot and Earth-2 Flash Jay Garrick. I could have watched them forever. But no, Patty had to written out, and Jay's role had to be diminished so that Tom Cavanagh could get more screentime. And it wasn't even done subtly -- everything was telegraphed. You knew Patty was leaving the show two episodes before she did; the minute Barry wrestled with whether to reveal his secret identity to her, it was clear she was being given the heave-ho. (And the "don't tell so-and-so you're the Flash" plotline had already proven irritating when it was foisted upon Iris in Season 1 -- it reeked of contrivance and chauvinism -- so why were they reviving it?) The Flash telegraphs everything; it's unbearable. If the heroes journey to Earth 2, and they're warned in advance that they shouldn't be surprised if they run into their doppelgangers, you can bet that they'll be surprised -- over and over -- when they do. When they return, if they're instructed not to reveal to the other characters that they saw their doppelgangers, you can bet that -- one by one -- they'll let that slip.

And by the middle of Season 2, the use of pep talks to resolve plots becomes unbearable. The nadir has to be the visit to Earth 2, when the Flash gets stuck in a cell and can't seem to vibrate his way out, and his Earth 2 doppelganger, a Barry Allen who is not the Flash, merely a geeky CSI (overplayed by Grant Gustin), assures him he can: "Today I did things that I never thought possible. Now, if I can do the impossible today, so can you. I'm just Barry Allen, but you're The Flash. If you tell yourself you can phase out of there, you'll do it." Logic of the A+B=3 variety. And by the way, what the hell did you do that day that was so impressive, Barry? You walked on ice -- that's pretty much it. But no matter the circumstances, no matter the logic, or lack thereof, everyone gets a pep talk on The Flash -- and then they find their inner strength, and succeed.

As an experiment, I decided to fast forward my way through the most recent episode, and only hit "play" when a scene looked like it would engage my attention. I only hit play twice. Two characters cross over from Arrow. Fast forward. Giant shark comes out of a pool. Fast forward. Mind-numbing idiocy with new character Wally West. Fast forward. Wait, what's that Cisco is telling Caitlin? Play: "You're being shut off. You're being detached. You're being cold." No, you moron, she's lost two men she loved in the space of six months -- have you ever heard of mourning, you stupid cretin? Fast forward. Oh, look, it's the end of the episode. What's happening? Guess they vanquished the giant shark (apparently he was called King Shark), and what's this? We're back on Earth 2, immediately after the end of the previous episode. A week earlier, we'd cut to credits on Jay Garrick being snatched back to Earth 2, and now, in this week's closing moments, we resume that scene at the exact second we left off. So in other words, this whole episode that I fast-forwarded through, this episode that was literally about trying to jump a shark, happened between two consecutive points in time. It was an episode of filler. I could have wasted an hour on it; fortunately, I only wasted eight minutes.

I know others enjoy The Flash tremendously. I know the show's contrivances, for them, are part of the fun. They see all the tropes I disparage as faithful to the spirit of the source material. But here's the thing. My favorite comic book writer, Cary Bates, wrote The Flash uninterrupted from 1972 to 1985. He tackled most of the characters seen on this show, and devised some of the very plots that the show is exploring. And he never settled for this sort of predictability. Cary's nickname in the business was "Mr. Surprise" -- he was best known for constantly springing fresh traps, unveiling new tricks. And he did so with a tone that was unmistakably warm, but that never stooped to easy sentimentality. The Flash is now a fun-house reflection -- or perhaps "reduction" is a better word -- of what folks suppose a comic book to be. But at its best, under Cary Bates, whose ebullience and imagination are very much the cornerstone of this new series, The Flash was easily more adventurous and less contrived than its TV adaptation. And I don't have time for a show that's content to be less than its best.

As for Arrow: oh well, in my year-end wrap-up, I argued that Season 4 was back on track, so I'm probably to blame for the dramatic decline in quality since then: I tempted fate. Season 3 had been a mess: a pairing to please the Olicity shippers that only made Felicity look needy and whiny; flashbacks that served no purpose, except "we do them every year"; and a host of errors in judgment. Season 4, from the start, restored the camaraderie, the sense of fun, and I had credited the return of Marc Guggenheim to active showrunning duties as the cause. I didn't much care for the villain-of-the-year, Damien Darhk; I prefer my TV villains on the subtler side. And the flashbacks seemed almost as lame as the previous season. But the cast was interacting so nicely, I didn't much care -- I didn't even mind when three presumed-dead characters were revived in three consecutive episodes. I found the new season such a relief from the previous one, I was willing to put up with anything.

But then the holidays hit. We started with oodles of subplot about fan-favorite Felicity Smoak's Jewish heritage. And then the villain abducted her, stuck her in a gas chamber and canonized the Holocaust as she lay gasping for breath -- and I sat there in disbelief. I went on Twitter, expecting an uproar -- and there was nothing. (Only one friend was as offended as I was.) The episode was shrewdly constructed; its cornerstone was our hero Oliver Queen proposing to Felicity, and Berlanti and Guggenheim knew that's all the fans would focus on. So they could be as outrageous, and ultimately offensive, as they wanted to be, and no one would notice or mind. And I dare say, I don't suspect a lot of Holocaust survivors are watching Arrow -- they are not the CW's target audience -- but that's hardly the point. The Holocaust was a horrific period in history where six million Jews were slaughtered, a mass incarceration and extermination that continues to impact its victims and their families -- and serves as a cautionary tale for what is currently a terrifying political climate. You don't trivialize it. (I grew just as angry two summers ago when The Strain suggested that there was some demonic creature killing Jews in the death camps. The Holocaust is not there so you can run your fun variations on it. It is, as the comedians say, "too soon.") The Holocaust plotline shattered my affection for Arrow, and there was clearly going to be a healing process. And as it turned out, there was going to be a healing process for Felicity, too, as she was gunned down in that same episode, with permanent damage to her spinal column, and we were advised, "She's never going to walk again."

Except you knew she would. I mean, even at the age of seven, watching TV, I had a good bullshit detector, like all my friends. (We didn't watch Gilligan's Island expecting the castaways to be rescued.) Nothing surprises me anymore -- and on a show that had already had three people return from the dead in three consecutive episodes, you knew something as "minor" as permanent paralysis wasn't going to stick. But still I wasn't prepared for how badly the writers would handle it. We had to wade through the usual cliches. There was the surgery episode, where all the characters got to intone aphorisms like "She's stronger than all of us." (No, she's not, but it's what people say when writers are parroting what people always say on shows like this.) Next came the post-surgery wallow-in-self-pity episode, complete with a guest appearance by Felicity-of-days-past, with pretty much the same backstory and hair color they gave fellow hacker Penelope Garcia when they delved into her backstory on Criminal Minds. (Felicity. Penelope. Potato. Potahto.) But then we get the news that Curtis, this year's good-guy cast addition, has devised a possible cure for her: an "implantable biostimulant." He advises her, "In a perfect world, it will work in time for you to walk down the aisle" -- which is a huge comfort, because ask anyone who's suffered crippling injury, and they'll tell you that the worst part of it is not being able to walk down the aisle on your wedding day. But it's not like the show was sensitive to Holocaust survivors, so why should we expect a story that respects the dignity of the disabled?

So Felicity gets the miracle cure, but surprise: it doesn't work. But before we have a chance to digest that, there's a crisis: Ollie's bastard son has been kidnapped. That would be a plot in and of itself, but here's the clincher: Ollie never told Felicity that he had a son, so suddenly she makes the plot all about her -- and the writers let her. They encourage her to hijack the storyline. They love their Felicity so much that an episode about a kidnapping becomes all about Felicity feeling betrayed, but bravely rising above all that to help find that boy. (My God, she's wonderful. Those self-sacrificing screen heroines of the Thirties -- who gave up their children so they could have a better life -- were no less noble.) And at episode's end, even though the boy's mother has told Felicity that she had demanded of Ollie that he tell no one, that it was a condition of him getting to know his son, Felicity still blames Ollie for his duplicity. She gives him back his ring, with righteous fury, and then: omigod, her legs are moving. She can walk again -- and more important, she can make a big, dramatic exit. Yup, her ability to walk again is used as a plot device. It was because she had to walk out in a huff that her legs worked. The writers rewarded her for her self-absorption with the use of her limbs.

I walk with a cane. I've had mobility issues for ten years. I live with constant pain. I have many friends dealing with disability, and chronic illness, and none of us are expecting miracle cures any time soon. But by God, when a show goes out of its way to show that all you need to overcome a permanent condition is self-absorption -- well, that was the straw that broke my disabled camel's back. I can't watch a show that gives Felicity a miracle cure just so she can make a dramatic exit.

And so I'll be making my own dramatic exit, and bid farewell to The Flash and Arrow. (Despite the pun-ny title of this post, which was too good to pass up, I don't claim the shows have "jumped the shark": merely that they've grown tiresome and objectionable.) If friends write in a few months and say they've suddenly become must-watch TV, I'll catch them in reruns, or from a streaming service. But the trust is gone, and with that goes the dedicated viewing. Thirty years ago, I would have continued to watch out of habit; now I can't justify it. Indian Summers is back. Grantchester is back. Daredevil is back. I still have to finish binging Happy Valley or at least two close friends will seriously wound me. I have been meaning to finish Season 2 of The 100 for a year now, so I could start on Season 3, and I still have five unwatched episodes of Les Revenants. I don't have time for shows that aren't even trying, or only trying my patience.

So in the spirit of The Flash and Arrow, I leave you with this:

"My name is Tommy Krasker. After fifty years spent watching television, I have moved on to a new goal: to only watch programming I love. But to do so, I can't be the indiscriminate viewer I once was. I must be someone else. I must watch... something else."

Farewell, Flash. Adios, Arrow.

Do you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows? You might want to check out this post where I make the case for two other shows: Limitless (cancelled after one season, but available on Netflix) and Madam Secretary. Elsewhere, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you have a preference for dramas, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching

I was put on six months medical leave in September, and decided to join Twitter: my husband figured it would be a good way for me to stay "connected" while I was housebound. I found a lot of folks who shared my passion for television, but I also started to feel that -- with so many choices these days in terms of "what to watch" -- my new online friends were overlooking some of the very best series. I've spent the last few months talking them up on Twitter, but I thought, why not gather them and praise them here, where I wouldn't be limited to 140 characters? Herewith: five series that add immeasurably to my viewing pleasure, but that haven't yet reached the audiences I feel they deserve. Three are UK productions, and although they've done well there, a lot of US viewers are only now discovering them. The other two are US shows that -- splendid as they are -- have never blossomed into huge hits. But all five are so worth a look, or better, a binge.

1. Grantchester: When ITV's Grantchester first aired in 2014, I called it the year's best show. It returns next month, and there's no reason to think that Series 2 won't top my list again. Grantchester is an original: part murder mystery, part character drama -- but in proportions I've never seen before, equally (and exquisitely) balanced. Each episode a mere 45 minutes, each one offering up a new case as it pushes the ongoing story-lines forward -- but the continuing plots never feel slight, and the detective work never feels slighted. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, but the show's success rests largely on star James Norton's sturdy shoulders. I've seen Norton in a half-dozen roles now (most recently as Prince Andrei in War and Peace), and he's never failed to impress, but Sidney Chambers plays to all his strengths. He's a vicar in 1953 England, still mired in memories of the war: tortured and self-loathing, looking to others to deliver him from the darkness. Yet he's also the ideal father confessor: open-faced, reassuring, nonjudgmental -- except when it comes to himself, and then he's unforgiving. "I'm supposed to be setting an example," Sidney bemoans in one episode, when his fondness for whiskey and weakness for woman have led him to another indiscretion -- and yet his empathy for others, and his sincere belief in the lessons he preaches, make him refreshingly human, and genuinely heroic. Crime-solving comes easy to Sidney Chambers; it's life that's hard to master. And as played by Norton, a warm and expressive actor whose features seem sculpted for the small screen, you see someone fully suited to sharing God's plan, even as he searches for his own answers. Norton makes Sidney Chambers a memorable and refreshingly complex hero, but his performance aside, the most remarkable thing about Grantchester -- remarkable for any show challenging convention and redefining the genre -- is how assured it is in its execution. There were no missteps in Series 1. Writer Daisy Coulam has precious few credits to her resume, but she's a talent to watch, just as Grantchester is a show to cherish.

2. Marvel's Agent Carter: The best of the current comic-book adaptations, and, of course, the only one in grave danger of cancellation. So if it might not be picked up, what makes its two seasons worth investing in? Because it's a "superhero show" done right: one devoid of missteps, that only continues to improve. It strands its formidable secret agent Peggy Carter in a period dedicated to the disempowerment of women: the years following World War II, when men returned from battle to reclaim their old jobs and women were once again relegated to second-rate status. In Season 1, the show plays as a bit of a polemic; by Season 2, it lets go of the anger and simply offers itself as an antidote to the pervasive chauvinism -- serving up some of the strongest female characters to grace the small screen. Agent Carter eschews the kind of plot contrivances that started to take down The Flash barely months after it got started; it avoids the dour sameness that has set in on Arrow. Admirably earnest as it carries out its season-long missions, it's also delightfully playful: amiable without being arch, cheeky without being campy. It's got a trio of charismatic leads -- Hayley Atwell, James D'Arcy and Enver Gjokaj -- and with the exception of one first-season Russian scientist I wanted to chuck out a window, some of the best villains I've seen in recent years. (And I am not one who cares for the current crop of TV villains, but the two currently powering the story-line -- and I'll say no more, so if you do tune in, you can enjoy the element of surprise -- are spot-on.) And Season 2, which wisely transplanted its leads from New York City to Los Angeles, has been a heady mix of Hollywood hedonism and female empowerment. (You've got to love a show that understands that only in Tinseltown, where looks triumph over logic, could a villain successfully hide a ghoulish scar behind a peek-a-boo bang.) The show is as no-nonsense as Peggy Carter herself, yet as beguiling as Hayley Atwell in her Forties frocks. It will be missed when it exits the airwaves, but hopefully will always be there for the (re)viewing.

3. Indian Summers: One of the highlights of 2015 didn't make it into my recent year-in-review -- because I didn't get around to seeing it till 2016. So let's correct a grievous wrong. Indian Summers was the best continuing drama I saw on TV last year, except I didn't see it till this year: a glorious piece of epic showmanship, remarkable acting, and sumptuous production values -- the kind that TV so rarely engages in anymore. I put off watching it for a time: I saw some reviews describe it as "a slow-burner" that "took a while to get going." It turned out to be nothing of the kind. Sometimes I fear that if a show doesn't boast a heavily-choreographed fight scene every fifteen minutes, it'll be labeled as "slow." (For the record, I found parts of Jessica Jones painfully plodding -- mired in the same story beats and tonal cul-de-sacs for episodes at a time -- but because there was always a well-timed smackdown to break up the monotony, no one seemed to mind much.) Indian Summers didn't take "a while to get going" at all; there was merely a lot to digest: characters, relationships, history, backstory. A half-dozen plots wove through each episode, intersecting capriciously and at times colliding inexorably -- how is that slow? It's 1932, during the final years of British colonial rule in India, and as the power-players take to Simla, at the foothills of the Himalayas, to rule and revel, the locals take to the streets to evoke a call for national independence. A lot of viewers compared it (sometimes unfavorably) to 1984's Jewel in the Crown; yes, they're set in similar periods, but they couldn't be less alike in terms of approach, focus or tone. It's the kind of series that involves you in both the personal and political entanglements, and although the historical events are familiar, the way they unfold -- and how they impact the lives of the principal characters -- is never less than engaging, and often engrossing. Extraordinarily well-played by a cast headed by Julie Walters (in a career-best performance, playing a nasty piece of work without ever asking for sympathy), with powerful turns by Henry Lloyd-Hughes, Jemima West, Nikesh Patel, Fiona Glascott, and Alexander Cobb. Exceptional viewing, and happily, returning to Channel 4 in 2016.

4. Elementary: Now in its fourth season, and I still see folks dismiss it as "just another CBS procedural." It's not. It's a delicious hybrid -- part absorbing character study, part sturdy whodunnit, enlivened by the crackling chemistry between Jonny Lee Miller (as Sherlock) and Lucy Liu (as Joan Watson). Creator Rob Doherty avoided the potential pitfalls of transplanting Sherlock Holmes to modern-day New York; far from it: he used the setting to inform the character. A superior Season 2 episode 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 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. 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 as eight million other New Yorkers -- and then as stunned when he stumbles into a friendship that helps him heal. And heal he does, as the character has grown remarkably in four seasons. Elementary had one misstep in Season 2: an attempt to drive a wedge between Sherlock and Joan that failed because of casting and chemistry. But otherwise, it's a show that's gotten more confident with each passing season, and easily the best performance I saw by an actor in 2015 was Miller in the episode "For All You Know," in which Sherlock was forced to consider that he might have murdered a young woman while he was using. As we head into the second half of its fourth season, Elementary seems firmly on a roll, with only the potentially over-the-top thesping of John Noble, newly added as Sherlock's father, a slight cause for concern. It's a show that's never dominated the TV landscape the way it deserved to, but if you've never watched, I'm told it makes for swell binge-viewing.

5. Unforgotten: After watching BBC's masterful adaptation of War and Peace, I remarked to a friend in the UK that things like that just don't get done over here anymore: those grand historical miniseries that used to be the bread-and-butter of sweeps programming. While admitting the superiority of British television in that respect, my friend countered that we in the States have our own genre series that the UK hasn't replicated or perfected -- chief among them, the newfangled police procedural that pairs old-fashioned detective work with the latest in forensic science. And indeed, those sorts of shows aren't as ubiquitous in the UK as they are here in the States; there was a time, from roughly 2002 to 2010, when the US airwaves were cluttered with CSI spin-offs and clones. Any new series would have to have a damn good hook to re-engage this procedural-weary TV viewer -- and indeed, ITV's Unforgotten, which premiered in the fall of 2015 and has already been picked up for a second series, makes a stale genre feel fresh again. On the surface, Unforgotten is what CBS's Cold Case would have been if each murder had taken six episodes to solve, but it's buoyed by a delicious conceit at its core. Unlike the other procedurals, we don't meet the suspects only when the police come to interview them. We meet them from the start. Even as the cold case is warming up, we're introduced to clusters of friends and family members, and became engaged in their personal stories -- without knowing, as yet, who among them might be connected to the crime. It allows writer/creator Chris Lang some wonderful reveals along the way, and further, by the time the police come calling, we've become so engrossed in the suspects' lives that seeing them disrupted -- and potentially destroyed -- becomes deeply distressing. The result is a show far more affecting than the average police procedural. And its ace-in-the-hole: star Nicola Walker, one of the most versatile yet underrated English actors, able to delineate and differentiate characters without ever stooping to the theatrical tricks lesser talents rely on. The ending of Series 1 was a little pat for my tastes, but Walker's empathetic performance, ably abetted by the winning Sanjeev Bhaskar, more than made up for any deficiencies. Darkly dramatic, wildly entertaining, and at its best, unforgettable.

Enjoy reading about TV's best? Check out two similarly-styled posts: Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss and My Top-Ten One-Season Wonders. Or if you prefer more detailed looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Judging Amy Season 6, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mike & Molly: an appreciation

A friend and I like to poke fun at folks who issue hyperbolic statements about their favorite TV shows, because -- well, because we're a little mean. But you know how it is when fans post about shows they love. If a favorite character is leaving, it's "I'll never watch another episode." If the show is prematurely cancelled: "I'm boycotting the network." And heaven forbid, if a long-running show leaves of its own volition: "I no longer have a reason to own a TV." So given my aversion to over-the-top pronouncements, this is not an easy admission to make: when Mike & Molly concludes its six-season run this spring, my world will be a lot less bright.

I wouldn't have suspected that would be the case back in the fall of 2010, when Mike & Molly quietly premiered on CBS behind (a ready-to-implode) Two and a Half Men -- although I took to the characters right away. As created by Mark Roberts, the couple at the heart of the series -- schoolteacher Molly Flynn, played by Melissa McCarthy (whom I had adored from her years on Gilmore Girls) and police officer Mike Biggs, played by Billy Gardell (whose sturdy presence I remembered from Yes, Dear) -- were instantly appealing. They met at Overeaters Anonymous -- that was the "hook" -- but it wasn't "a show about overweight people," although myopic critics and rude viewers were quick to label it that way. It was simply a charming slice-of-life comedy about two characters destined, from their first date, to be together. And then, as we met the people in their lives, it developed into something a little raunchier -- because their in-laws were a cast of crazies (comprised of some of the most winning actors imaginable: Swoosie Kurtz, Katy Mixon, Rondi Reed, for starters). Roberts plotted every episode that first season, but he was still finding his way, and sometimes, it seemed like he was writing two different shows. Molly and Mike would engage in some sweet, unforced story-line -- and then, as if Roberts feared the show wasn't funny enough, he'd have the supporting characters toss off crude jokes, the kind that made for easy laughs. There was a tonal gap Roberts couldn't seem to bridge.

But all that changed in Season 2 (the episodes leading up to Mike and Molly's wedding), as Roberts and his team learned how to weave the voices into one character-based comedy, without resorting to one-liners or cheap gags. Mike & Molly Season 2 was a delight, capped by Melissa McCarthy's Emmy-reel performance late in the season in "The Dress," as Molly determined to lose the weight necessary to fit into her wedding gown. Look closely the next time you rewatch her tour-de-force performance, because it's a harbinger -- in the best sense -- of where the show was ultimately headed. Up to that point, Molly was the quiet center of the show: the grounded one, the sensible one. But as she puts her diet into overdrive, hellbent on shedding those final pounds, Molly goes a little wild -- and it reveals new facets of the character, and how much more McCarthy could do if the constraints of the role were loosened. But first we had to get through Season 3, the couple's first year of marriage, and sadly, that was a bit of a chore. If Season 1 was Mark Roberts finding his way, Season 3 seemed to be him losing it. The ongoing story-line was Mike and Molly's efforts to conceive a child; it included Molly switching to "fertility-friendly" foods, Mike switching from briefs to boxers, and ultimately, a trip to a fertility clinic -- but none of it seemed to play to the actors' strengths. After her knockout performance in "The Dress," McCarthy was relegated again to the "straight man" role, reacting to the wackos around her with a look of pained discomfort. If Molly and Mike were Roberts' "average couple," now they risked becoming too average; Roberts was holding to a vision of the show that was growing stagnant.

And then Mike & Molly was saved by a tornado. The day of its Season 3 finale, deadly tornados touched down in the midwest. The season finale was about a tornado sweeping through Chicago; CBS decided to pull the episode. But the finale was also when Molly was to give Mike the good news that she was pregnant. And the episode being postponed enabled Executive Producer Chuck Lorre and Melissa McCarthy to have a conversation: is this really where we want the show to be heading? A season of Molly pregnant? Then a season of Molly caring for a newborn? Mark Roberts left at the end of Season 3 -- I'm not going to speculate why, but by that point it was a change I applauded -- and Al Higgins, who'd been with the show since the start, was promoted to showrunner. And when the Season 3 finale finally aired, weeks later, Molly's big announcement had been quietly edited out. And Season 4 began with Molly decidedly not pregnant -- instead, quitting her staid teaching job to pursue her dream of becoming a writer.

And the show charted a new course, as it featured a brasher Molly, one more in line with the character we had glimpsed in "The Dress," and one closer to the film roles that had been garnering McCarthy huge audiences and acclaim. The early episodes of Season 4 are uneven, but they're instantly funnier than anything that came before them. (I have never been one to laugh out loud at the TV screen, but I do when Mike & Molly is on -- and particularly when it's on its game.) It takes a few episodes for the writers to iron out the new format, but once they do, everything clicks. Suddenly, Molly is no longer the still point of the storm; she's more a force of nature. And playing opposite a newly unleashed Melissa McCarthy (an actress who can do more with a line than just about anyone out there), everyone else is able to up their game. Not to get bigger, mind you; the other actors -- particularly the ones with the more strident characters -- can now bring it down a notch. She's playing stronger, so they don't have to hit the laughs as hard. The show gets better balanced, and in particular, Billy Gardell is placed more into a Jackie Gleason, slow-burn role, and he fills it beautifully. And making Molly and Mike's marriage more combustible allows Mike and his fellow police officer Carl (the sensational Reno Wilson) to relax their relationship, and what develops is a double-act bromance that stacks up to the best in TV history.

Since early in Season 4, there hasn't been a misfire, not an episode that didn't amuse -- and nine times out of ten, the laughter has come in waves, and when the waves cleared, there were tender moments that, happily, never devolved into "special" moments. The show has dealt out equal doses of humor and heart. And occasionally the plots have managed to shock as well, as they explored the challenges of making a new marriage work. In one episode, we learn that Molly has gone back on the pill, and hasn't told Mike. In another, as her writing career takes off, she gets invited to a swank cocktail party and tries to keep Mike from attending, for fear he'll embarrass her. In the wrong hands, those episodes could have been awful: uncomfortable and unforgivable -- but the brilliant McCarthy invites your empathy and understanding. And beyond McCarthy, everyone has been served splendidly. Carl seeking out his mother, who abandoned him as a child, and trying to forge a relationship with Molly's sister Victoria; Victoria, in turn, confronting her fear of commitment; Mike's mother Peggy facing the challenges of old age and the demons of her childhood: all sensitively scripted -- and the actors have responded with glorious performances. (And as Molly's oversexed mother, Swoozie Kurtz, in episodes like "Checkpoint Joyce," has been Emmy-worthy, pure and simple.) Paradoxically, by making Molly more dominant, the writers turned Mike & Molly into more of an ensemble comedy. She was no longer the outsider looking in; she became one of them -- and they, in turn, became more rounded and appealing.

I couldn't possibly pick a "favorite" Mike & Molly -- let's just take a closer look at the one that aired last Wednesday, because it was emblematic of everything the show does right. It was about death: that topic that seemingly every sitcom takes on, and that few handle well. This one did. Molly, Victoria and Joyce's yoga instructor -- a woman barely Joyce's age -- has dropped dead during class, and the shock of it sparks discussions and decisions, all carefully rooted in character. The episode is anchored by three brief scenes between Mike and Joyce's current husband Vince (Louis Mustillo, always hilarious) -- the two characters least inclined to explore their feelings, and therefore, you'd think, least likely to ponder life's mysteries, but indeed they do: they consider the possibility of an afterlife, and ultimately vow to reincarnate, so that whoever goes first can come back and let the other know if there's a heaven. (Vince tells Mike he'll appear as "a yellow butterfly landin' on your nose.") Mike and Carl share a scene at Samuel's diner in which Mike questions the value of keeping to his diet; if a healthy yoga instructor can keel over and die, isn't death ultimately random? The scene boils down to whether Mike should eat the apple fritter he's ordered: "a deep-fried death warrant," as Carl calls it. Carl is so insistent that Mike stick to his regimen -- if not for himself, then for Molly -- that when Samuel brings them their food ("One apple fritter: served without judgment or liability," he announces, in Nyambi Nyambi's driest delivery), Mike dutifully pushes the fritter away -- inspiring Carl to gobble it down instead. (And Billy Gardell does his best double take...)

But the bulk of the episode belongs to the Flynn women. Determined to get her affairs in order, Joyce hands each of her daughters a page of color-coded stickers, so they can mark what they want when she dies. (Molly objects, "Victoria and I are not picking through your things like a couple of vultures" -- but when Victoria reaches in to sticker her mother's earrings, asking, "Are earrings one sticker or two?," Molly's quick to set the ground-rules: "Two. They should be two.") Later, Molly joins Joyce in the basement, where Joyce is trying to pry open a strongbox that's been stored away: "I was completely blindsided when your father died -- I had to plan a funeral, figure out bank accounts, bills -- all while bawling my eyes out. I don't want you girls to have to go through all that." (She presumes the box contains savings bonds and insurance papers, but as it turns out, it's just X-rated Polaroids. Joyce, admiringly: "Boy, your father sure knew how to frame a shot.") And the episode gains traction with the discovery that Joyce is planning on leaving the house to Victoria. Molly, who considers herself the "good daughter," takes it badly, leading to a marvelous drinking scene, and an even better drunk scene -- in which she informs Victoria that the reason she's getting the house is because she's a screw-up, because Joyce knows she'll need a home. But Victoria, the air-head and pothead, counters that she, in fact, is the responsible one: unlike Molly, she has no credit card debt, no outstanding bills; she has enough money put aside to buy any house in the neighborhood. It's a wonderful turnaround: a savvy side of Victoria that's rarely been explored.

So why is Joyce leaving Victoria the house? We wind up back in the basement, where Molly has dragged out Joyce's old Underwood typewriter. They recall that when Joyce worked as a stewardess for Pan Am, she used to type her daughters tales of her adventures. Molly reflects, "I think those letters are part of the reason I wanted to become a writer" -- a lovely way of drawing on one character's backstory as a way of explaining another's passions. Molly wonders, in a moment of quiet insecurity, is Joyce leaving Victoria the house because, in fact, Molly is the screw-up: the one who quit her teaching job, and has a shopping addiction, and is at that moment working off a hangover? Not at all, Joyce assures her: "I'm givin' it to her so you'll have no choice but to get the hell out." Molly is baffled: "You want me to leave?" And Joyce insists: "Of course I do -- I want you to spread your wings, see the world, live your life -- but not until mine is over. 'Cause I can't imagine this house without you." It's a touching moment that elicits a wave of "aw's" from the studio audience, but before the scene can get too soppy, Molly's clear-headed response ("That is the sweetest, most dysfunctional thing you've ever said to me") sets things right. And that's the particular genius of Mike & Molly: that fine line it walks between tough and tender. Every episode is funny and boisterous when it wants to be, and warm and moving when it needs to be -- with actors who can make those transitions seamless, who can go from raucous to reflective and back again.

There are only eight episodes left of Mike & Molly. I don't know if there's a formal "series finale" planned; I presume not, because its cancellation came as such a shock to cast and crew -- and in fact, I hope not, because even the best shows frequently screw up their series finales. But even if the ending stinks, I'll be the first to forgive it, because how do you hold a grudge against a show that's given you so much pleasure, that's brightened your spirits on the days you've needed it most? A show where the actors have convinced you, week after week, that the joy emanating from the soundstage was real: that these people loved being together as much as you loved watching them. I'm sad that Mike & Molly was canceled after only six seasons, but I'm not boycotting CBS, or selling my TV in defiance. Instead, I'm simply going to be grateful for the time spent with this amazing cast, and for writers who seemed to respect and adore the characters as much as I did.

May 2016 post-finale post-mortem: I needn't have worried; Mike & Molly went out on a perfect note. I can't imagine a more satisfying conclusion. Its final season may well have been its finest season; how often does that happen?

Do you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows? If so, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you have a preference for dramas, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent Netflix miniseries), Cold Case Season 4, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries -- not (necessarily) my top episodes, but the best whodunnits.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Madam, I'm Adam: the year in review

My annual year in review. You can check out 2013 here, and 2014 here. As always, I do not purport to have watched every great show on television this past year; this is not a "best of 2015" list. These are simply the shows I watched, the trends I noted, the risks I saw taken, and the mistakes (plenty of 'em this year) I saw made.

The good got better, and the bad got worse -- but only the bad got rewarded. That's what I got from my TV viewing in 2015: the saddest life-lesson ever.

frustrations: The Americans, Two and a Half Men, The Flash

The first half of the year was mostly an exercise in futility. After a splendid second season, The Americans fell from grace in Season 3, with unconvincing plotlines and ill-served characters. Two and a Half Men tried to go out on a high by restoring a little warmth and purpose to the show, with a season-long story about adoption (we were warned, and feared, it was going to be a season-long story about a sham gay marriage, but our fears were unfounded) -- but then Chuck Lorre upended it all with a finale so ill-advised that you wondered if he was determined to outdo the How I Met Your Mother creators, in taking a long-running show and making you regret every moment you'd invested in it. Constantine and Forever, two worthy series, continued to impress and improve, the former with no shot at renewal, the latter with virtually no shot -- but then Forever suffered the greater humiliation come cancellation time when two lower-rated shows at the same network were picked up, just because they were in-house productions.

And speaking of in-house productions, Matthew Perry returned to TV with his worst series, The Odd Couple, seemingly unable to give a single convincing line reading (and this from the actor who, in Friends episodes like "The One With the Girl Who Hits Joey," made it seem like language had been created just for him to play with), but then, because CBS remains determined to steamroll an in-house sitcom into syndication, was rewarded with a renewal. Whereas one of the network's sturdiest sitcoms (both in quality and ratings), Mike & Molly, following its best season yet, was again held for midseason when the upfronts were announced; then its episode count was reduced from 22 to 13; and finally, in December, before it had even returned to the schedule, it was canceled -- to the surprise of its stars and its viewers. "I was shocked and heart-broken," Melissa McCarthy tweeted: "I would have shot this show for 50 more years" -- and I believe her. A few months ago, I praised CBS for starting to turn themselves around, with some smart pick-ups and scheduling moves. Now they pull out the rug from under one of their biggest stars when she's flying highest, headlining the funniest movie of 2015. Network TV: a set-up for disappointment, a recipe for heartbreak.

Two new comic book adaptations hit the network airwaves this past year: iZombie, quirky and quick-witted, and Supergirl, more mainstream but no less delightful -- and both struggled in the ratings. (Supergirl, designed as a stronger lead-in to Scorpion than 2 Broke Girls and Mike & Molly had managed the previous season, plummeted in the timeslot to only about 75% of what the two sitcoms had managed, despite a huge PR push.) The comic book adaptation that continued to dominate in the demo: The Flash, which devolved during the spring months into the kind of lazy shorthand that required characters to act stupid in order to generate plot ("Let's put the shape-shifting metahuman in the back of my car and drive him to the police station. What could go wrong?"), then saw its story-telling abilities decline even further over the fall. And the winning Teddy Sears, a strong Season 2 addition, was shunted aside after just a few episodes so that the showrunners could try yet again to find a character that Tom Cavanagh could play convincingly -- and once again, they failed. Showrunners Berlanti and Kreisberg: you're on the set with Cavanagh 24/7; could you not get a clue as to what the guy can do (I hear he was good on Ed) and write him a suitable part?

But then, this is the show that allowed Mark Hamill to give what might be the worst performance I saw in 2015, as the returning Trickster in the sadly aptly-titled episode "Running to Stand Still," hamming it up like Cesar Romero crossed with Frank Gorshin -- so why should I expect anything of The Flash at this point, except an uncanny ability to attract forgiving viewers? I did a whole column this year called The Sorry State of TV Villains, mostly about performers overacting to the point of absurdity (as if they were still on the old Batman TV series, while everyone else in the cast was acting in a grittier, more naturalistic style), and dammit, I wrote the column two months too soon: Hamill would have topped the list. One of the best performances I saw by a villain this year was in the same Flash episode: Liam McIntyre as Weather Wizard. He was so restrained, I almost wept in gratitude. He didn't "play the villain"; he just played a villain. He was content to sink his teeth into a good role without feeling a need to chew the scenery as well. Could everyone else please take note? Neil McDonough of Arrow, take note. Steven Weber of iZombie, take note. And oh dear Lord, John Noble, take note, because one more performance like you gave in Elementary's final episode of 2015 and you're gonna sink that extraordinary show, and I don't think I could bear it.

Note to villains: if the plot depends on the hero not guessing your evil intent, then please dial back the wickedness to just this side of cauldron-stirring -- because otherwise, the hero looks like a fool for trusting you. Which is what happened on the last episode this year of Elementary, when Sherlock spent the day with his father -- John Noble in a performance just barely more subtle than he managed on Season 2 of Sleepy Hollow -- then gushed to Joan about his renewed faith in his father's decency and integrity. C'mon, Mr. Noble, I've seen you do superb work; if the script calls for friggin' Sherlock Holmes, who misses nothing, not to see your dastardly demeanor, then you can't spend the whole episode with a smirk plastered on your face, lacing your lines with irony. I don't know when this tendency of the bad guys to ignore the logic of the story-line became an affliction, but it sank Season 2 of Arrow and Season 1 of The Flash, and sapped much of the fun out of Daredevil for me. Again, shameless plug: I talk about it here, but who knew a few months later, I'd have enough ammunition for a follow-up? (Admission: everyone else seems to love these hammy villains much more than I do; sometimes I'm so at odds with popular opinion that it delights me.)

better news: The Big Bang Theory, The Mentalist, Elementary

Was there any good news in 2015? A bit. The Big Bang Theory shocked the hell out of me by managing yet another resuscitation, using Sheldon and Amy's break-up in May to force Sheldon to new levels of self-awareness. "Amy, I excel at many things, but getting over you wasn't one of them," Sheldon told Amy when she suggested they get back together, a sign of how far Sheldon has come in just a few seasons, and maybe the single best line of dialogue I heard all year. His on-camera breakdown as colleagues were shooting a documentary, and then the couple's reconciliation -- which played out over two episodes, the second being (in a scheduling move clearly arranged by the gods of television) on the night of the new Star Wars premiere, which featured heavily in the plot -- were the most exuberant and affecting the show has been in over two years. Likewise, Arrow improved immeasurably in its new season, as returning showrunner Marc Guggenheim made note of every misstep in Season 3 and corrected course, restoring the camaraderie, common sense, and sense of fun. Well, until -- yup, just like Elementary -- its final show of the year, a ghastly error in judgment that played up Felicity's Jewish heritage, only to stick her in a gas chamber while the villain canonized the Holocaust. From what I saw on Twitter, only about four of us viewers minded, because the episode also saw Ollie propose to Felicity; it was as if the showrunners said, "Let's see if we can do something really offensive and have no one notice, because we'll also do something really big for the shippers." Thank you for shaming humanity, Mssrs. Berlanti and Guggenheim; did you not see that you were shaming yourselves as well?

And speaking of felicities (apologies: terrible segue), the summer months were full of them: Poldark, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Mr. Robot, Humans, Ray Donovan (despite it having a shaky season, under new showrunner David Hollander) -- not to mention the guiltier pleasures like Zoo (my favorite summer series), Dark Matter and Wayward Pines. The year's best programming was saved for the months with the lowest viewership: sure, why not? But a few of the summer successes came with a price. The rapidly declining ratings for Jonathan Strange on BBC One make it less likely that novel, ambitious projects like that will be undertaken anytime soon, and less easy for its writer, Peter Harness (one of my favorite story-tellers), to pitch them. And sometimes this past year, I set myself up for disappointment: following Poldark, I had such high hopes for director Ed Bazalgette in his upcoming two-episode stint on Doctor Who that I waxed on about it in print -- and then they turned out to be my least-favorite directed episodes of the season. Ah, 2015: dashing my dreams and expectations like clockwork...

Best farewell: The Mentalist. Some weeks, I sat stunned at how good the show had become again. Creator Bruno Heller and his longstanding writing team nailed every moment: every character introduction and re-introduction, every development and departure. And as I noted in an earlier blog, the pairing of Jane and Lisbon -- which I never expected to work (forgetting, I see now in syndication, the flirtatious chemistry that was apparent in Season 1 episodes like Ashley Gable's "Flame Red") -- was handled with such charm and ease that you bought into it completely. The Mentalist went out on a high not only artistically, but emotionally. I'm not a fan of series getting contrived "happy endings" (I still cringe thinking about how some of the "realistic" Lear sitcoms -- e.g., One Day at a Time, Good Times -- wrapped things up in the '70s and '80s -- and don't get me started on this year's Downton Abbey Christmas finale), but The Mentalist was never a story about Patrick Jane getting his revenge on Red John -- it was about Patrick Jane getting his life back, and in the show's final season, and particularly in its final moments, he did just that. It was the series finale that got everything right. The one that gave us everything we wanted, even the things we don't know we wanted -- and let's face it: how often does that happen?

Best comeback: Elementary, which, after a lackluster ending to Season 2, got back in gear with the addition of Sherlock's new protege Kitty -- whom, shrewdly, we got to know not through Sherlock's eyes, but through Joan's. The introduction of Kitty went off without a hitch, and the miracle of Season 3 is that once she left, and we feared the show no longer had a serialized hook to hang itself on, the plotting remained strong, and more important, the characters continue to evolve all the way through the end of Season 3 and into Season 4. Rob Doherty's writing team was very much on its game in 2015, with pretty much everyone contributing at least two sterling scripts, and I'm reasonably certain that the Best Performance by an Actor in a Drama Series in 2015 was Jonny Lee Miller in the episode "For All You Know," in which Sherlock was forced to consider that he might have murdered a young woman during the period he was using -- but heaven forbid anyone connected with a series that's still seen by many as "just another CBS procedural" should get any Emmy or SAG-AFTRA love. As we head into 2016, Elementary seems firmly on a roll, with, as noted, only the potentially over-the-top thesping of John Noble a cause for concern. (Last month, watching Syfy's exceptional Childhood's End adaptation and BBC One's solid And Then There Were None three-parter, I kept thinking of all the fans, when it was announced that Sherlock's father would be added to the Elementary cast, who posted, "Charles Dance would be perfect in the role." Ah, if only...)

best news: Unforgotten, Limitless, Madam Secretary, Doctor Who

ITV followed up its ground-breaking detective drama Grantchester with a more traditional murder mystery, Unforgotten, but it was highly engaging: a cold case solved over six weeks, where we delved into the suspects' lives in depth, watching as secrets were revealed and dreams came undone. If the various wrap-ups were a little too pat for my tastes, the drama was anchored by another splendid performance by Nicola Walker, and her no-nonsense approach more than made up for any deficiencies in story-telling. Sky Atlantic and Showtime's Penny Dreadful had a deliciously subdued second season: less a new set of adventures than an elegant reshuffling of the deck, in which characters switched partners and luxuriated in conversation, in verse that could have been fashioned by Trollope or Tennyson. And CBS, on a downward creative spiral for several years, managed two must-see series in 2015: Madam Secretary in its (superb) second season, and Limitless in its (splendid) first.

Let's start with Limitless, which for CBS is sort of a miracle: the kind of younger-skewing, still older-adult-friendly show CBS has been searching for for half a decade, as well as the sort of popular, serialized drama it's been struggling to find since Desperate Housewives and Lost revitalized the form back in 2004. As Brian Finch, a regular bloke who gets his hands on a pill that magnifies his brain function, Jake McDorman is giving the kind of star turn that's star-making: it's not just a dynamic performance, it's an astoundingly ingratiating and empathetic one. Limitless eschews CBS's ailing procedural format in favor of something much less predictable, filled with ongoing threads, mysteries and revelations, and the result is more sheer fun than anything on TV right now: fleet-footed, brash and irresistible.

As Limitless reaches a younger audience that CBS has been thirsting for, Madam Secretary is playing to its more traditional base, but it's giving them the best character drama they've had since the early days of The Good Wife. Téa Leoni (subtly commanding and amusingly withering, often in the same breath) stars as former CIA agent Elizabeth McCord, brought back to Washington to serve as Secretary of State. The show utilizes the dual home/workplace format that's been around for generations, but it's upped its game on both fronts as it's headed into Season 2. The political stories have grown more sweeping and more nuanced, and the stakes ever higher, while home life has rarely rung so true -- which should come as no surprise to anyone aware of the background of series creator Barbara Hall (Judging Amy, Joan of Arcadia), since no one better dramatizes the day-to-day drudgery and messy humor of American family life. The Secretary of State is well cared for on the home front and abroad.

Limitless and Madam Secretary: two shows so good that I devoted an entire column to them -- and as of this writing, I find Madam Secretary the best drama on television.

As noted, lots of series -- Arrow, Elementary -- started the new season strong, then ended with a sting in the tail. So, of course, leave it to the time-traveling Doctor to do it in reverse. The new Doctor Who season started with two of its most mediocre episodes in recent memory -- I managed to see them at a SAG-AFTRA screening in New York City, with a theatre full of rabid fans, and by the time the final credits rolled, there was no cheering or applause: just a lot of stony-faced viewers exiting in mystified disappointment. (So naturally, when the episodes finally aired on TV, they were hailed both here and in the UK as instant classics.) Series 9 clearly suffered from scripts having been assigned when it was presumed that Jenna Coleman would be leaving after Season 8; the early scripts reeked of rewrites, missed opportunities, and ill-fitting characterizations. ("The Magician's Apprentice" and "The Witch's Familiar," by their very titles alone, were clearly designed to introduce a new companion, and poor Coleman was stuck playing Clara in scripts that were never meant to feature her: forced to play a gullible novice, and doing the best she could with it.) But the season swiftly improved, and went out on a stunning triple-header high. A solo showcase for Peter Capaldi, an exhilarating farewell for Coleman, and a gloriously moving goodbye to Alex Kingston -- each successive episode unfathomably better than the last. Two years ago, I was one of a handful of Who fans silently hoping showrunner Steven Moffat would bow out gracefully, as his energies and imagination seemed to be wilting. But how the addition of Capaldi has recharged his batteries: we've now enjoyed the two best series of New Who to date.

best surprises: The Man in the High Castle, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Gypsy

2015 was the year, of course, when FX Networks CEO John Lundgraf declared, at the TCA press tour, "There is simply too much television," and if the shows that lie unfinished on my TiVo and DVR are any indication (not to mention the shows that were unfinished and deleted to make room for the shows that lie unfinished), then he's right. But just because there's "too much television," is there too much good television? Because typically I can find time for shows I'm passionate about, no matter how crowded my schedule. But I never got through Fear the Walking Dead -- but I mean, really, what was the point, except to see how stultifying a series about zombies can be when it's ill-conceived and badly cast? -- and so much on Netflix is awaiting completion: from Jessica Jones to Bloodline to season 4 of Longmire. Will I finish them? I have no idea. About these new series designed for streaming: I keep hearing friends say things like "I couldn't stop watching" (myself, I find it really easy to -- sometimes mid-episode) and, if I say I'm having trouble getting into a show, they tell me, "It's a slow burn." (I've learned that just means, "It's slow.") And I have no trouble with slow -- I mean, I loved Season 1 of The Killing -- but I also like involving, entertaining, varied, gripping, gratifying. "Slow" alone only gets me so far...

The streaming series I found most engrossing? The Man in the High Castle: brilliantly imagined, designed and performed. When I finished, on an exultant high, I Googled to see when Season 2 might be premiering, and was somehow led to The New York Times review, which bemoaned the "underwritten characters — including, unfortunately, central figures Juliana, Frank and Joe, who sap the life out of the show whenever they mope their way on." I can only imagine, in some scenario appropriate to the series itself, that the Times critic was sent some alternate-reality version of the show -- because for me, more than the production design, more than the political parallels and questions it raised, what distinguished Man in the High Castle was that every role, no matter how small, was cast and performed to perfection. After all the amateur acting from professionals this year, seeing a show that imbued even the tiniest roles with detail, delicacy and dignity was intensely gratifying. Shout-outs to the three so-not-underwritten leads, Alexa Davalos, Rupert Evans and Luke Kleintank; to Rufus Sewell, who managed to make a villain complex and commanding without needless histrionics, and to his onscreen wife, Chelah Horsdal, who matched him beat for beat; to bravura yet restrained turns by two older pros, Carsten Norgaard and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa; and to some splendid supporting playing by DJ Qualls, Rick Worthy and Stefanie von Pfetten.

I've focused a lot on this year's dramas, because the second half of 2015 was noticeably shy on humor. With Mom held till late November, and Mike & Molly off the air till 2016 (returning tonight, as I post this: hallulejah!), I turned to the premium channels (HBO, Showtime) and streaming services (Amazon, Netflix, Hulu) for laughs; unfortunately, no one warned me that few of these off-network, single-camera sitcoms actually have laughs. Oh, it's not that they're not enjoyable -- well, Difficult People and Grace and Frankie aren't (Grace and Frankie is, I think, the worst Jane Fonda vehicle I've seen since the film 9 to 5); they're just not particularly funny. The Matt LeBlanc starrer Episodes is a moderately engaging series with, unfortunately, just one laugh-out-loud episode in four seasons (it's Season 3, Episode 6: since creators Crane and Klarik think it's clever not to name the Episodes episodes, I'm not going to bother describing it), and Transparent is an engrossing drama with, like any decent one, some amusing situations and lines. (But of course, now that the Emmys view any half-hour show as a comedy, Jeffrey Tambor takes home the award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series for his shaded and subtle dramatic work on Transparent.) Of all the sitcoms I saw this year on anything other than the Big Four networks, only Silicon Valley made me consistently chuckle. Lost, I fear, among the series' showier performances is the one that kept me coming back: Zach Woods as Jared, one of the most nimble and endearing turns I saw in 2015.

Two of the best-reviewed fall sitcoms -- FOX's The Grinder and Grandfathered -- depended on an understanding and enjoyment of their stars' on-screen personae and off-screen antics; I found them tiresome. Of the new series, I got more laughs from two hour-longs than any of the thirty-minute sitcoms: the aforementioned Limitless, and the one-of-a-kind Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which boasted no less than four break-out performances. Part neurotic character comedy, part musical comedy pastiche, it's an original and a blessing in this day and age -- and one episode in particular, "I Hope Josh Come to My Party!" (all about a housewarming) was the funniest thing I saw in 2015, with a knockout vocal performance by Donna Lynne Champlin, who -- if I were doing the Emmy balloting -- would have the Supporting Actress Award sewn up. And of course, the show is languishing in the ratings, awaiting cancellation, because -- well, because that's just how the year has gone...

There was one other musical comedy treat in 2015: the BBC Four airing of Gypsy, and with deep respect to my friends in the business, half of whom I feel like I've seen in revivals of Gypsy, the West End production (starring Imelda Staunton, Lara Pulver and Peter Davison) was probably the best I've seen since Lansbury's. Superbly directed for the stage by Jonathan Kent, and caught on camera by the peerless Lonny Price, this Gypsy nailed everything. Fine, they cut the Overture to shreds, and left out the "Small World" reprise, and the lamb was a stuffed animal -- and I will live. But they captured the era, the exuberance, the energy and the emotionalism. Gypsy is a long show, and this production, to its great credit, moved like a racehorse, without sacrificing humor, poignancy or impact. Ever since the Tyne Daly revival, the tendency has been to play Madame Rose's abusiveness as her dominant feature, to subordinate her most engaging traits to her more deplorable ones. At times, Staunton veered dangerously close to that interpretation, particularly in close-up, but mostly her Rose was a woman possessed by the sounds of Tin Pan Alley: her hands and arms and shoulders forever pulsing to an imagined beat, her face staring out at some distant dream. She was willing slave to the fantasy of showbiz fortune that Gypsy serves up so effectively. I would have thought it impossible to create a Rose that worked simultaneously for a live theatre audience and for the intimacy of the camera -- but I was proven wrong. Staunton was, simply put, revelatory.

As for Peter Davison, his Herbie may well be the crowning achievement of an already extraordinary career. He matched Staunton in intensity when he needed to, but he also had powerful warmth and charm that, in turn, humanized her. It was the best interpretation of Herbie I've seen -- and omigosh, they let him sing. Suddenly there was Herbie harmonizing along, more than in any production I've seen, and as a result, "You'll Never Get Away from Me" and "Together (Wherever We Go)" weren't just Rose pulling her long con: Herbie was a willing accomplice. His level of self-awareness made his character both more admirable and more dominant, and his departure all the more devastating. And then there's Lara Pulver, to whom I owe an apology. I have not particularly cared for her in the television appearances I've caught -- MI-5 and Fleming and Sherlock's "Scandal in Belgravia"; she was always asked to play sexy and self-assured, and I felt something lacking. I thought she simply wasn't up to the task. So I eat much crow to say that her performance as Louise in Gypsy was perhaps my favorite since Julienne Marie in 1960. My God, she was good -- and now I realize that the other roles I've seen her in have simply been too limiting; this is an actress who doesn't thrive when pigeon-holed. Maybe her performance in Gypsy will give industry folks a better idea of what she can do (which is apparently everything) other than merely "play sexy." In particular, the final scene between mother and daughter -- the crucial scene in Gypsy that so often feels anticlimactic -- was, hands down, the best I've see it performed.

a dose of reality: Adam Ruins Everything

And while I'm eating crow, I guess I should admit that one of the most unexpected pleasures in 2015 aired on a network that I have seen fit to mock on this blog, for its steady stream of World's Dumbest Competitions and World's Most Shocking Chases and other hyperbolic dodo-fests that send me fleeing the room every time we channel-surf by them. TruTV, that bastion of televised waste, gave us Adam Ruins Everything, and it might well be the year's most delightful surprise, as comedian Adam Conover -- with imagination, irreverence, and very bad hair -- skewers sacred cows and corrects misconceptions about one topic a week: from the automobile industy to forensic science to the electoral college. As illuminating as it is entertaining, it's the rare show -- like John Oliver's Last Week Tonight, which hit its stride in Season 2 -- where you laugh and learn at the same time: TV where you actually come away better for the viewing, but managed in such a cheeky, yet intelligent way that you never feel patronized.

In a year when ruination was the order of the day -- network executives engaged in suicidal programming practices, showrunners willfully alienating their audiences, actors indulging in what should be career-ending hammery -- it seems somehow fitting that one of the best shows of 2015 showed that sometimes, thank goodness, you can f**k things up for the better. Adam Conover managed the miraculous: to halt my incessant mockery of TruTV, which was one of my greatest pleasures.

He really does ruin everything.