Thursday, December 25, 2014

Gilmore Girls season 7

We all turned on Gilmore Girls, didn't we? Creators Daniel and Amy Sherman Palladino departed at the end of Season 6, and despite their leaving the show in tatters (some have speculated they were determined to sabotage it before they went), we were suspicious that anyone could replace them. And we didn't give new showrunner David S. Rosenthal a chance. He told us he wasn't going for fast fixes: he was going to let the mess that ended Season 6 play out, and promised the characters would emerge better and stronger for their journey. And we didn't believe him -- in fact, we hated him before he ever got started.

I remember the impact Gilmore Girls had when it debuted in October of 2000. Within a few weeks, it seemed like mother and daughter Lorelai and Rory Gilmore and the denizens of Stars Hollow had captured the hearts of everyone I knew. Family members. Friends. Professional acquaintances. I was doing odd jobs a few weeks after the series premiere and met up with someone who programmed piano rolls for a living. I couldn't imagine that we'd have anything to talk about, but we got on the subject of television, and he said, "But the best show on TV right now is something called Gilmore Girls." And in retrospect, I think he was right: certainly, there was nothing else like it on the air, and the first half of the first season -- the assuredness with which the Palladinos forged a family and a community -- was dazzling.

The Palladinos were sensational storytellers, but they weren't infallible; even their best seasons suffered from the occasional curious choice or error in judgment. And when a season missed the mark, it really missed the mark. Their first bad season -- Season 4 -- didn't recover until two-thirds of the way through; their worst season -- Season 6, by far -- started ghastly and never recovered. During those troubling times, they would hold firm to terrible ideas that weren't working; they would defend them till season's end and argue that they needed those plotlines to get where they wanted to go. They needed Rory to accomplish almost nothing in Season 4 so that her feelings of isolation would lead her to sleep with (her married ex-boyfriend) Dean in the season closer -- but they didn't get that we, the viewer, had to sit through those event-free episodes. (Who can forget the debacle of Rory searching for a "study tree"?) As writers, they could justify their bad plots, provided they paid off, but could we forgive them as viewers? Apparently we could, because even when all of Season 6 turned into a shambles (the first half hijacked by Rory and Lorelai's endless estrangement, the second half by the most hackneyed plotting the show had ever witnessed: Lorelai's fiancé Luke suddenly finding himself the father of a teenage girl he never knew he had); even when the wildly out-of-character writing for both Luke and Lorelai (him: distant; her: spineless) led to an unconvincing season-end break-up; even when nothing in Season 6 ultimately paid off -- still we mourned the Palladinos' departure from the show, moaning "no one can replace them."

On a clearer day, I can reassess; to my surprise, I now find that Season 7 -- the David S. Rosenthal season -- is the one of the two I most enjoy rewatching. The first five episodes are solid if unspectacular; the next four are uniformly uneven. But the back thirteen are as good as the series got, and the best run of episodes since early in Season 1.

The Palladinos invented marvelous characters. Forward motion was not always their friend. Every year, Lorelai and her mother Emily would start to grow closer, then something increasingly pointless would happen to drive a wedge between the two and reset the relationship. Lorelai and Emily's inability to let go of the past made for a complex mother-daughter dynamic, but it also made for a static one. Rosenthal gets that these two women, with decades of baggage, are never going to let go of all the pain and mistrust, but that doesn't mean they can't move forward. In the first great episode of Season 7, the tenth, Emily, seeing her daughter sabotaging her new marriage, offers her advice; at first, it's as caustic as we'd expect from Emily ("Marriage is not about always being happy, and often it's about not being happy at all. It's about compromise, which is not your strong suit. Marriage is not about winning an argument, which may make you sad, because that's what you love."), but curtness quickly yields to caring ("But I don't want to see you ruin this. Marriage is serious business, Lorelai, and if you don't take this very seriously, then this whole thing could fall apart faster than you could possibly imagine. And he'll be gone, and you'll be alone again. A ring is no guarantee.") -- and Lorelai finds herself strangely calmed by her mother's concern. That's the beginning of a wonderful late-series arc for Lorelai and Emily. Five episodes later, with Lorelai's marriage at an end, she and Emily -- over a computer lesson and a few drinks -- share their most tender exchange in the show's seven-year history; seven episodes after that, Lorelai has grown so comfortable with her mother's presence in her life that she offers to continue weekly dinners with her parents (that tradition she'd been dreading and lamenting for years) even though Rory -- who's always been the impetus for the dinners -- is going off on her own. The evolution of Lorelai and Emily's relationship is one of the marvels of Season 7.

Similarly, Rosenthal reinvents Rory's high-school foil and sometimes-nemesis Paris; as original conceived by the Palladinos, she'd pretty much outlived her usefulness -- her histrionics had grown tiresome and repetitive. Rosenthal drops the arbitrary battles that the Palladinos put Rory and Paris through every year -- he knew he could let them develop as friends and still mine the humor and the friction. Midway through the season, Paris unexpectedly defends Rory to a classmate who's been freezing her out ("In case you don't know it, Rory is a great person, and she does not deserve to be treated this way. Anyone should feel lucky to call her a friend; I know I do"), and from that point, the two forge a bond that had never been explored. By graduation day, when Paris gives Rory an emotional hug and predicts, "You're going to do great things, Rory Gilmore" (and Rory, for her part, promises, "We're going to be friends for a long time"), we suddenly understand why Rory has put up with Paris since high school -- why she chose to room with her in college, which always seemed motivated more by plot than by character. Paris is the kind of driven person you want in your life; she expects as much of you as she demands of herself, and that's not such a bad thing.

Rosenthal gets so much right, it's alarming to look back and see how mistrustful we were in 2006. But we wanted Luke and Lorelai back together, and we didn't know where Rosenthal stood. So when he paired Lorelai with Rory's father Christopher instead (marginalizing Luke into stories with his new daughter April), then went so far as to marry off Lorelai and Christopher, we figured that was his endgame -- and loathed him for it. But that was Lorelai's endgame, not Rosenthal's -- how embarrassing that, despite a lifetime of TV viewing, we couldn't distinguish the character's motives from the writer's? Christopher, as Robert Bianco once noted in USA Today, was always Lorelai's Ashley Wilkes -- that romantic fantasy that she couldn't quite get past. Rosenthal realized that Lorelai couldn't move forward with Luke until she got Christopher out of her system: until she committed to him and it failed. And so he fast-tracked that relationship, and dummies that we were, we couldn't see that failure was the endgame. (Rosenthal's biggest mistake that season: overestimating his audience. Lorelai and Christopher elope in Paris: we hear "Paris" and presume it's supposed to be romantic. But Lauren Graham is careful not to play it as romance: she seems grateful for the proposal, relieved, uncertain, anxious to let go of the past, and occasionally like a deer caught in headlights -- anything but romantic. But still I know some bloggers who despise the season precisely because of how they continue to misread that episode.) As for Luke, Rosenthal realized that he had some life-lessons of his own to learn, and what better way to embrace the responsibilities of adulthood than to take on the raising of a child? He transformed April from a lamentable plot-device into an endearing teenager who could teach her father about sharing, commitment, taking risks, moving forward.

If the first nine episodes are scrappy and a little ham-fisted: well, the Palladinos had left debris in their wake. It takes Rosenthal nine episodes just to clean up the mess, then you see his vision for the season come to life, in a remarkably assured and satisfying pre-Christmas episode called "Merry Fisticuffs." It's the first episode to make it clear that Lorelai and Christopher's marriage won't last, so at that point we relax, and it's a good thing, too, because from there, every episode is a winner: in fact, a lot of them pay homage to episodes from earlier seasons, and reinvent them -- or top them. In Season 1, Lorelai's father Richard suffered a bout of angina, which prompted an underwhelming standalone episode; in Season 7, he undergoes heart surgery, and it's momentous: it's the catalyst that drives Lorelai and Christopher apart and, as Richard recuperates over a half-dozen episodes, draws Lorelai and Emily together. Late in Season 3, Rory's mailbox was flooded with college acceptance letters, but Paris's dreams of attending Harvard were dashed; four years later, on the eve of college graduation, Rosenthal flips the script -- he lets Rory pin all her hopes on one prospect, an internship at The New York Times, then pulls the rug out from under her -- and it's heartrending. (And Rory's meltdown, which lasts a weekend, seems reasonable, as opposed to her downward spiral in Seasons 5 and 6 that dragged on for six endless months.) Meanwhile, Emily's brief meeting in Season 2 with Mia, the woman who took in Lorelai when she was pregnant with Rory, becomes a whole (wonderful) road trip for Mia's wedding ("Gilmore Girls Only"), during which Lorelai finally understands the impact her running off at age 16 had on her mother -- it allows Lorelai and Emily to bond over the effect Rory's graduation will have on them both. The final thirteen episodes of Season 7 are mostly written by Rosenthal, co-executive producer Rebecca Rand Kirshner, co-producer Jennie Snyder and consulting producer David Babcock; they write these characters like they'd been writing them forever.

Need a reminder of how solid Sookie and Jackson's relationship is? You get it in "It's Just Like Riding a Bike." Need a reminder of how sweet and supportive Lane and Zack's relationship has become? You get it in "Lorelai? Lorelai?" (The latter episode also contains probably the show's single most memorable scene: Lorelai's tipsy karaoke valentine to Luke.) Rosenthal makes you care again for characters who'd been making you cringe for years (Taylor, Luke's sister Liz, her husband T.J.). He gives them purpose. The ones who are irredeemable -- like Colin and Finn -- he simply omits (thank God), but he pretty much finds the value in everyone else.

With one key exception. The Palladinos had introduced Rory's boyfriend Logan back in Season 5, but they'd never really defined him. Was he a heartthrob or a heart-breaker? A snake or a charmer? He wasn't multi-dimensional; he was convenient -- episode by episode, he behaved however the Palladinos needed him to for the purposes of the plot. Rosenthal has the final word on Logan Huntzberger, and it's not a kind one -- but it is consistent with everything we'd seen. Every time Logan screwed Rory over, he'd sweep her off her feet with his wealth and privileged background and make it right. Rory begs him to stop with the grand gestures in "Gilmore Girls Only," but still he comes back, just four episodes later, with the ultimate in grand gestures: at her graduation party, in front of friends and family, that's when he chooses to propose -- with a horse and carriage, no less, waiting outside. Logan comes from a world of entitlement; he expects to get his way. When Rory turns down his proposal, he bolts -- that's pure Logan, and that's the last we see of him. Matt Czuchry is such a handsome and charismatic actor, of course you want to like the character -- you want to give him the benefit of the doubt. Logan fans cried foul at seeing their favorite written off in such a cavalier fashion -- they scoured through three years' worth of episodes for all the signs that Logan had matured, changed, become a person worthy of Rory -- but Rosenthal knew that the Huntzbergers of the world don't change. He was never going to be Rory's knight in shining armor -- and besides, why did Rory need one?

There are so many highlights in the last thirteen episodes of Season 7 that I haven't even listed some of my favorites. There's the long master shot of Lorelai and Sookie trekking through Stars Hollow in "To Whom It May Concern," when Sookie discovers she's pregnant and, through the course of the walk, her anger and terror turn to giddy anticipation. There's Stars Hollow's magical "Hay Bale Maze," during which, surrounded by hundreds of revelers, Luke and Lorelai make their overdue apologies to each other. (As an aside, I've seen some odd readings of "Hay Bale Maze" that propose the maze represents some season-long confusion on Lorelai's part. For me, what "Hay Bale Maze" is "about" -- what it understands -- is that the most private confessions often happen in the most public places.) And there's every moment of that glorious finale, "Bon Voyage," in which Rosenthal ties up his story-lines delicately, yet leaves open dozens of wonderful possibilities. It's not one of those "everyone-gets-a-happy-ending" finales that started flooding the airwaves in the early '80s and continues gratingly to this day. It's just another sublimely understated chapter in the lives of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, and I don't see how it could be better. I don't see how much of Season 7 could be better, but still the myth persists that the season's a bummer. Of all the online posts I've seen, only the passionate, insightful John Bierly seems to understand and defend the Rosenthal master plan.

There was some talk in the media a while back about a potential Gilmore Girls movie, and I saw several fans cheering, "Yes, yes, at last we'll get the final season done right." The final season was done right -- but even the press can't seem to accept that. They're still dangling before us four little words Amy Sherman-Palladino intended to end the series with. If a movie happens, I'll be the first one cheering it on, but if not, I'm OK never knowing Amy's Four Little Words. The series ended, and it ended perfectly. Let's move on; Rosenthal, happily, did so. Following his year as showrunner on Gilmore Girls, a year in which he was roundly roasted by critics and viewers alike, Rosenthal wound up as producer-writer on The Middle, one of TV's best sitcoms, and he's now ensconced on the Golden Globe-nominated Jane the Virgin. There is some justice in the world of entertainment after all.

December 2016 update: Well, we didn't get a Gilmore Girls movie, but we did get a Netflix miniseries. I wrote it up at length -- in an essay that's part pop culture, part politics -- here. And if you enjoy these in-depth looks at hit shows, check out my write-ups of Judging Amy Season 6, Cold Case Season 4, and countless essays devoted to seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. Or if you have a preference for sitcoms, I pen an appreciation of the underrated Mike & Molly, delve into WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4, serve up shorter takes on Bewitched Season 2 and Rhoda Season 3, and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Tudors & The Culpepper Conundrum

I finally had a chance to binge-watch The Tudors. I remember seeing the first episode on Showtime back in 2007, but nothing about it compelled me to tune in the following week. If only someone had told me that Michael Hirst was, by his own admission, writing a soap opera and not a historical narrative, I probably would have pushed past the ponderous pilot. (Oh, Lord: "pushed past the ponderous pilot." I've watched so much Newhart, I'm starting to talk in alliteration, like Michael Harris -- although I suppose he would have "pushed past the pale pageantry of the ponderous pilot.") As soaps go, The Tudors isn't a bad one: it's almost always watchable even when it isn't very good. That said, I was never convinced that Hirst was writing the show he thought he was writing; in the interviews I've read, he describes characters much more rounded than the ones we see on the screen. At one point, after Henry VIII has rejected papal supremacy and initiated the English Reformation simply so he can marry Anne Boleyn, his chief minister Thomas Cromwell describes him as, in fact, "a true Catholic, except this one thing: he would have neither Pope, nor Luther, nor any other man set above him" -- and although that's the character's observation, it's pretty much how we see Henry as well: as a man of no real convictions, a narcissist who'll rewrite, ignore or subvert any laws of church or state to meet his needs. As for Anne Boleyn, Hirst was apparently struck when critics called her a "manipulative bitch," because he intended something more fully realized, but it's hard to see how, since from the moment she appears on the scene, pimped out by her bastard of a father, she has her eyes firmly set on the crown. (Hirst gives her a few sympathetic scenes right before she gets axed, but that's Soap Writing 101, and we see right through it -- it humanizes her, but it certainly doesn't "redeem" her.)

Probably because Henry and Anne come off like blustering supervillains -- the Megalomaniac and the Minx -- our sympathies fall to the more devout and restrained characters: Maria Doyle Kennedy's Catherine of Aragon and Jeremy Northam's Sir Thomas More. They're written like saints (as opposed to the clergy, who are written like thugs), and at times, their faces are lit as if they're touched by God. In soap terms, they're the "good guys" and Henry and Anne are the "bad guys" (you spend most of Season 2 waiting for Anne to get her comeuppance -- it's like a good Booth Tarkington read, only longer -- and then you spend Season 3 waiting for Cromwell to get his). The first season is undermined by too much faux political intrigue, the second season by a surfeit of failed or imagined assassinations. Sometime around the middle of Season 2, both Jonathan Rhys Meyer (as Henry) and Natalie Dormer (as Anne), whose performances to that point have been beyond reproach, start to badly overact, and you sense they're as frustrated with the series' lack of forward motion as we are, and maybe a bit over all the shouting matches and bodice ripping. (Dormer seems relieved when she finally gets to her execution scene.)

And then something unexpected happens to The Tudors as it lurches into Season 3: it gets much better. For a magical four episodes, the story-telling becomes cogent. The Pilgrimage of Grace is admirably dramatized in both bold and short strokes (Gerard McSorley cuts a striking and sympathetic figure as Robert Aske; the Pilgrimage also gives Henry Cavill's Charles Brandon something to do, after two seasons of bed-hopping), and back at court, Jane Seymour (as portrayed by a warm and underrated Annabelle Wallis) seems to have a calming influence not only on Henry but on Hirst as well. (Rhys Meyer's performance at her deathbed is nothing short of magnificent.) For the first four episodes of Season 3, The Tudors attains an equilibrium rare for the series -- and then it all goes to pot. But for a while, The Tudors is rewarding entertainment. Watching it was a nice way to start the year.

Another British period soap returned to the air while I was binging The Tudors: Downton Abbey -- and after four episodes, I really don't know if I'll make it to the end of the season, let alone the end of the series. A lot of soaps suffer because as the characters grow, they get away from what made you love them in the first place; Julian Fellowes is writing the first soap I've ever seen where the characters don't evolve at all. Lord Grantham, Mary, Edith, Thomas, Carson, that ghastly kitchen quadrangle -- it's like they're all stuck in time, like characters in a bad sitcom. Violet is still sniping at Isobel, Thomas at Bates, Mary at Edith; every year, Fellowes resets the relationships to zero -- he seems terrified to let them develop. ("What will Downton Abbey become if the same characters can't keep hurling zingers at each other?" The answer: fresher.) And the few characters who have evolved -- like Tom Branson -- have been left worse off than when Fellowes found them. And that dialogue! This week, Mary got handed her first marriage proposal since her husband's death. I'd like to say that her suitor basically made the pitch "He's dead and I'm alive," but he didn't say something like that -- that's exactly what he said: "He's dead and I'm alive." There were a half-dozen moments like that on Downton this week -- lines when I didn't know whether to be more stunned that someone wrote them, or sorry that someone had to say them. Anna justified keeping her rape from her husband with this nugget: "Better a broken heart than a broken neck." Thomas told off Edna with "You're a manipulative little witch, and if your schemes have come to nothing, I'm delighted." That's the kind of line Jane Wyman would have skewered Ana-Alicia with on Falcon Crest.

And let's talk about Tom Branson for a moment, shall we? Whatever happened to that proud, opinionated, wickedly charming chauffeur? Does he really have to be reduced to a Mopey Minnie who sits around Downton Abbey feeling sorry for himself? If we're going to have suffer through years of this fish-out-of-water nonsense, couldn't he at least show the family a little of the old Tom: some fire in his belly, a hint of his old revolutionary streak, a trace of anger or self-righteousness or spirit that might actually impress them? Does a man with this much to offer really have to spend his time feeling he's not good enough for the gargoyles and Gorgons of Downton Abbey? Well, of course he does. Julian Fellowes is in love with the Granthams. He loves them so much he can't write for them anymore.

The self-pitying Tom doesn't play to any of Allen Leech's strengths; I was reminded watching him in his short stint on The Tudors -- where he comes roaring on the screen with a sexy swagger -- how charismatic he can be. I mean, his character on The Tudors makes no sense; he's introduced as Francis Dereham, an old acquaintance of Queen Catherine, and within moments, he's boasting to the court of their indiscretions, like he thinks they're all going to say "way to go, man," pat him on the back, and buy him a brewski. (They don't: they behead him.) But Leech has so much charm even playing a rotter (and a demented rotter at that) that you're happy to go along for the ride. Season 4 of The Tudors is full of characters who don't seem to have any reason for their actions, but they're so full of life -- like the characters in Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette -- that while they're on the screen (not just Leech, but Tamzin Merchant's Catherine Howard and Torrance Coomb's Thomas Culpepper), you find yourself swept up in their kinky self-absorption. I think I'd choose any of them over the calcified clucks on Downton Abbey.

One last thought about The Tudors. You're aware all through the series that it's messing with history for the sake of drama, but you don't really care. Until Season 4. And that's when they try to tell us that Thomas Culpepper, the Queen's lover, was executed and his head put on public display, and that's when you just have to cry foul, because any real TV viewer knows that Thomas Culpepper died in Pusan, in shallow water. I mean, you can mess with history all you want, but don't try messing with Season 3 of Dawson's Creek:

Grams: You know, when I was just a few years older than you I was working at Brunswick Naval Hospital and I met a boy who had the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen. He was leaving for Pusan in the morning but we had an entire glorious day on the beach. And at the end of that day, he leaned in close to me and whispered, "Will you wait for me?"

Andie: So what did you do?

Grams: I froze. I knew if I leaned just two inches closer the world as I knew it would be changed forever.

Pacey: So you did nothing? You didn't kiss him, you didn't try to speak to him, you just did nothing?

Grams: Nothing.

Jack: Did you ever wonder what your life might have been like if you had kissed him?

Grams: That is just the point. I don't have to wonder. The very next day, I got my best friend Sally to cover the shift for me. And after seven turbulent hours in the cargo hold of a C130, I arrived in San Diego, went straight to the dock, and in front of the entire crew of the USS Missouri, I kissed him.

Jen: That's funny, I had no idea Gramps was in the Korean war.

Grams: He wasn't. Thomas Culpepper, the boy with the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen, died in Pusan, in shallow water, before he ever made it off the boat. (pauses) And two years later, I married your grandfather. So I’ve had 46 wonderful years with one man, and one perfect kiss with another, and I have no regrets. I wonder how many of you will be able to say that about your lives?

Now that I think about it, Grams' gentle recollection of her "one perfect kiss" with Thomas Culpepper in the Season 3 finale of Dawson's Creek is more affecting and effective than any of the stultifying speeches in the whole of The Tudors. Sometimes on a good soap, people don't need to raise their voices or bare their tits to get your attention.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

No Place Like Holmes: the year in review

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

the CBS implosion: The Good Wife, The Mentalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

nostalgia viewing: WKRP in Cincinnati, Newhart

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

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

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

Suddenly they're Burns and Allen.

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

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