what i watched last week
music friday, 1953-2013 edition

the karen sisco award and the mini-series

[The introduction is largely copied from previous years.]

Three years ago, I started a new tradition. I called it the Karen Sisco Award, named after the short-lived television series starring Carla Gugino. Sisco was the character played by Jennifer Lopez in the film Out of Sight, and the series, which also featured Robert Forster and Bill Duke, was on ABC. They made ten episodes, showed seven, and cancelled it. Gugino was ridiculously hot (no surprise there) and the series, based on an Elmore Leonard character, got about as close as anyone did to Leonard’s style until Justified came along.

When I posted an R.I.P. to the show, my son commented, “Every year there is a new favorite Daddy-O show that gets cancelled mid-season. … You have some sort of fixation with doomed shows, did it start with Crime Story or does it come from your upbringing?” (In fairness, Crime Story lasted two seasons.) The Karen Sisco Award exists to honor those doomed shows.

Previous winners were Terriers (2010), Lights Out (2011), and Luck (2012).

If I am going to respect the concept behind the Karen Sisco Award, then I have to face reality and admit that there is no winner in 2013. There were short-lived series, but I didn’t watch them. The closest “Sisco Show” might have been Treme, which is leaving us after a short, five-episode “hurry up and be done” half-season. But Treme got 3 1/2 seasons out of HBO, so it’s hard to say it wasn’t given a chance.

This gives me an opportunity to talk about what I consider the #1 trend in television this year: the mini-series, which begin with the idea of a limited run (5-8 episodes seems the standard). Perhaps it is this willingness to create a mini-series that prevented anything from being this year’s Karen Sisco. Previous award winners ran for a full season before cancellation. But these new shows were finished before they could be cancelled. The irony is, they were so good, in many cases they have been renewed for a second short season.

What were these series?

Top of the Lake marked Jane Campion’s return to television with a six-episode story of a missing 12-year-old girl, filmed in New Zealand. Elisabeth Moss starred, and Holly Hunter had an extended supporting role. Campion’s approach was subtle, and the scenery was beautiful. Sundance Channel picked it up for showing in the U.S. (stretching it to seven episodes, which made for some odd episode endings and beginnings). A-.

Broadchurch was a British series that came to the States via BBC America. It starred David Tennant and Olivia Colman as detectives attempting to solve a murder in a small town. It ran for eight episodes, just enough for us to get to know the people in the town, and thus to experience the impact of the crime along with them. I thought it was one of the top five shows of the year, and apparently others agreed … a second season will be filmed, and Fox is putting together an American remake. A.

The Fall was a BBC police drama about a serial killer, with Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan in the leads. Once again, the show was at its best in showing the lives of the characters and integrating the locale (in this case, Belfast) into the story. It ran for five episodes (and was renewed for a second season). It showed up in the U.S. on Netflix. A-.

The Returned was a hard-to-describe French series, once again about events in a small town, this time running for eight episodes. The cast was unknown to me, and they were all very good. We got it on Sundance Channel. A second season is planned, which in this case is a mixed blessing, since the end of season one came with no real explanation for what we had seen. A-.

Dancing on the Edge was a BBC drama about a black jazz band in 1930s England. This was a “true” mini-series, with no subsequent seasons planned. It ran five episodes (plus an epilogue) and starred the reliably great Chiwetel Ejiofor. In the U.S. it played on Starz. A-.

Rectify was Sundance Channel’s first original series, running for six episodes, with a second season planned. It was created by Ray McKinnon, better known to most of us as a character actor (the Reverend on Deadwood, among other roles). It was so “slow” it made Rubicon seem action-packed, and was perplexing enough that I never got around to giving it a grade. But it’s definitely unique.

Six series, four A- and one A (and an Incomplete, I guess). All of them the equal of previous winners of the Karen Sisco Award, none of them lasting more than eight episodes. But they weren’t cancelled, they were meant to be short, even though in four cases there will be a Season Two. If any of these shows had been cancelled, or disrespected, they’d be this year’s award winner. But 2013 was a particularly good season for television, including series from other countries being shown here in the States. Which is perhaps the real message: with so many new outlets for series (Sundance and BBC America have been around for a bit, Starz is a recent entrant in the series stew, and Netflix is best-known for its rental service), networks looked to New Zealand and Britain and Northern Ireland and France for worthy programs. It’s not that American TV wasn’t up to the standards of these “foreign” shows … as I said, to my mind only Broadchurch made the Top Five for the year … but all five of the foreign series were very good (and very short).

So, in lieu of a 2013 Karen Sisco Award, I offer a tip of the cap to the mini-series format. It probably goes without saying that shows like this are perfect for the new fad of binge-watching, which is also true for the previous Karen Sisco Award winners.