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; I grew so discouraged, I devoted a whole column to its decline. 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.

2 comments:

  1. Blimey! Another huge piece! How long do these take you? I agree with much though I though Ray Donovan's third season was great and I like the corny villains in Flash and Arrow. Zoo was my guilty pleasure too. All TV can't be clever and sophisticated - sometimes you just need to see Billy Burke chased by animals.

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    1. I can only write a few hours a day, around my "day job." Some of my posts -- the more tightly-focused ones -- write in a day or two. These "year in review" posts take a few weeks to write, and a week to edit and proof -- and on this one, just as I was about to post, I suddenly thought, "Shoot, I forgot Penny Dreadful!" I know you and I (politely) disagree about the hammy villains. For me, it's not just the hamminess -- it's that no one else is playing in that style. In the old Batman TV series, everyone was in on the joke -- but when everyone is playing it straight, and the villains alone are camping it up, that's when the clash of styles bothers me. As noted, I know I'm in the minority! Glad to hear you were a Zoo lover -- yup, as you said, sometimes you've had your fill of "brainy" television, and you just watch to see animals attack. I liked the show from the get-go, but found it unremarkable, but enjoyed it more and more as it went along, as the characters were fleshed out, and the actors got more comfortable. Glad it's been picked up.

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