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the first annual karen sisco award

teevee 2010

Critics are already cranking out their Top Ten lists, so although this is earlier than usual for me, here is my own annual television wrap-up. I don’t make a Top Ten list, I just look back and some of the things I wrote since the last time I did one of these (December 18 of last year, if you care).

Craig Ferguson. “[S]ometimes he’s even congenial, but in his case, it feels like he’s just being himself, unlike Leno, whose congeniality comes across as an act. Ferguson’s nightly monologue segments put everyone else’s to shame … once in awhile, he substitutes lip-syncing puppets for a monologue, which is funnier than it sounds. He has mastered the art of making everything look off-the-cuff, even if it’s prepared in advance (my guess is, it’s a combination of the two) … Ferguson trusts his ability to think on his feet. This also leads to interviews that are more like conversations than promotions.”

Dollhouse. “[T]he growth of the series, from ‘why bother watching’ to ‘show I most look forward to,’ was remarkable and, if not unprecedented, at least highly unusual. … I didn’t write about Dollhouse until quite a few episodes had run. I simply wasn’t interested enough. Now? I already miss it, and it’s only been gone for two hours.”

Human Target. “What has kept me watching so far is the afore-mentioned lack of seriousness and the plethora of over-the-top action scenes. … Human Target will never reach the heights or the depths of a Dollhouse. A good episode will be a B+ … a poor episode will be a C+ … and there will never be an A, and I’ll quit watching before there’s a D.”

Big Love. “[W]hile the best parts of Big Love have always been the interactions between the wives, the distractions from that core have gotten worse over time. This season we had contraband birds, meth dealers and gambling, inbreeding, gay love that led to suicide, an old lady using an axe to lop off the arm of a bad guy, and the rotting corpse of Roman Grant being carried around from one location to the next. … It was busy, all right … it kept me awake. But it also offered far too many examples of the overused ‘jumped the shark’ concept.”

David Mills. “Mills was involved with some of the greatest programs in television history, going back to the days of Homicide and NYPD Blue. A longtime friend of David Simon, Mills also worked on The Wire, was co-writer and co-producer for The Corner, for which he won two Emmys, and had a major role on the upcoming series Treme, about which Mills was very proud and very excited. I always liked to think, without stretching the truth too much, that he was a friend of this blog … he made a few appearances in the comments section. His own blog, Undercover Black Man, was always worth reading … shit, he posted there just two days ago! Mills was in his late-40s … I’m one who thinks death always comes too early, but fuck.”

Glee. “The Madonna episode of Glee spent a lot of time talking about how the spirit of Madonna’s art was so powerful, it changed people’s lives. But the episode just rode on Madonna’s coattails … it was, in the end, a sadly conservative presentation. ‘Like a Prayer’ was devoid of pretty much everything that makes it great in the first place. If you didn’t see it, trust me, there was no rule breaking, no groundbreaking, nothing confrontational or transgressive about Glee’s version of the song. It was presented just like most of the songs on Glee, in, to state the obvious, a Glee Club version. This is why in the end, this show isn’t for me. Simply put, I do not believe every popular song ever written is best presented in a Glee Club format. Glee’s ‘Like a Prayer’ wasn’t any closer to the core of the song than if it had been performed by a barbershop quartet. To say nothing of the way they chopped the song in half, turning a six-minute epic into a three-minute commercial for positivity.”

Damages. “There is a long history of anti-heroes in TV who are bad at the core, but who for whatever reason keep an audience riveted to the screen. They are usually men: Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey come to mind. Patty Hewes claimed that ground for women, and I wonder if that explains why Damages was never very popular … maybe people don’t want women with balls. It’s also possible that the maze-like plots and jumbled structure of the show threw people off. Maybe people just didn’t want to watch a show where pretty much every character was troubled at best and, more often, just scummy.”

24. “Ultimately, these last episodes suggest that 24 would have been better if it only lasted two seasons. The first season established the premise and gave us a classic TV character in Jack Bauer; the last season finally allows Bauer to fall off the cliff. As long as another season was on the horizon, that cliff was bogus, because Jack always had to return. Now, all proverbial bets are off, and the payoff is tremendous. First season necessary, last season necessary. All those other seasons are just pretty girls getting caught in cougar traps.”

Lost. “Lost went out as it went in, IMO … almost every episode was intriguing, inspiring plenty of online water-cooler talk the next day, but I never cared about it once the water-cooler was unplugged. I never missed an episode, liked it most of the time, but now that it’s over, I won’t miss it.”

United States of Tara. “None of this works if Toni Collette isn’t just right as Tara, and Collette certainly delivers. Tara is the type of character tailor-made for acting awards, and it’s a sign of Collette’s excellence that her Tara never feels like the conduit for Emmys. Her transitions between the various alternate personalities are seamless, and while such characters are relatively easy to pull off on a surface level (hence the potential for awards), Collette always convinces us that the inner lives of the alters are real, as well.”

Treme. “There are things about Treme I don’t much care for, but nothing that would convince me to quit watching, or to think that it’s anything other than a very fine show. I mean, if the harshest criticism I can come up with is that it’s not perfect, I’ve left plenty of room for goodness. … If you don’t want to watch people from New Orleans enjoying their food and their music and trying to climb out of their suffering … well, you might as well skip Treme. Like I say, I won’t recommend it unequivocally. But everyone else ought to get on board.”

Justified. “I’ll tell you the best comparison to Justified: Karen Sisco. The latter show was based on the movie Out of Sight, with Carla Gugino taking the Jennifer Lopez part. Gugino was smart, tough, and sexy, and the series did a fine job of emulating the world of Elmore Leonard, who created the character. The series was not popular, for reasons I don’t understand. Justified, also based on Elmore Leonard characters, will return for a second season, which it deserves, just like Karen Sisco did. … [T]here haven’t been any bad episodes, and there are plenty of good ones. Justified is a second-tier series, but it’s a very good second-tier series.”

True Blood. “When True Blood began, there were vampires and there were ‘normal’ people (and there was Sookie, with her mysterious powers). Over time, we have learned that almost everyone has their secrets, that no one is really ‘normal,’ that we all have ‘unnatural’ powers. Like most of the show’s metaphors, this one is beaten over our heads to make sure we get it. I prefer to enjoy the sex, the violence, the blood, and the kink. And I have to give props for the line of the year: ‘They killed my Cooter!’”

Mad Men. “I’ve found the female characters to be one of the most fascinating aspects of Mad Men, and for the most part my admiration for the show increased in that regard. Peggy and Joan are finely-drawn and superbly acted, and the secondary characters (Pete’s wife, Don’s various girlfriends, Miss Blankenship) were either complex or, in the case of Blankenship, hilarious. Special props to Kiernan Shipka as Sally … she has been a delight since the beginning of the series, and the now-10-year-old handled her dramatic scenes this season very well. … In the past, I identified with Betty, while also seeing bits of my own mother in the character. The way in which circumstances worked to stunt her emotional and professional growth, the way she embodied the more frustrating aspects of being a stay-at-home mom in the 60s, the way in which she was an outsider in a series devoted to the work lives of people (while she was at home, working as a wife and mom, but not doing a very good job at the latter and doomed to a cad of a husband for the former) … even as Betty acted out, I felt for her, understood her plight. But this year, it became too much. There was no longer anything to like about Betty. She was a witch to her kids, treated everyone else with disdain, manipulated all who entered her orbit … and the finale, when she fired Carla, was perhaps her worst moment of the entire series. Mad Men offers so many great female roles, and Betty Draper used to be one of them. Now, she’s just a bitch.”

Rubicon. “Rubicon was 24 for intellectuals, and by that I don’t just mean it was directed towards smart people. Rubicon was about intellectuals … the heroes weren’t emotionally distraught shoot-first-ask-later archetypes, but instead really smart, neurotic office workers who pored over endless piles of intelligence documents, looking for connections. Jack Bauer in 24 suffered for his country and his ideals because he was always having to do things he didn’t want to do, out of respect for his personal code. The workers of Rubicon suffer the way most of us do … working too late, getting wrapped up in the job. Rubicon showed us that the kind of personality good at filtering through intelligence data (super smart, socially inept, good at abstract thinking) was also the kind of personality that fed on itself in such a work environment. It’s not just that no one had a life outside of work … it’s that every slim chance that they might finally escape was overwhelmed by yet another stack of documents. One of the intelligence workers was an addict, but really, they all were, addicted to information, to making connections, to overloading their brains.”

Sons of Anarchy. “Season Two is still the one great season thus far. This season, we got to see more great acting (Charlie Hunnam does not seem like anyone’s first choice to play the central figure of a conflicted, violent biker, but Season Three was his the way Season Two was Sagal’s). We got to learn more about the backstory of the Sons. And there was never an episode where I wished I wasn’t watching. … I wouldn’t be complaining if I didn’t have high expectations, and I look forward to Season Four.”

Terriers. “And so last night’s episode of Terriers was quite likely the last episode of Terriers. And a lot of you are going to find it on Netflix or Hulu a couple of years from now, and you’ll have a 13-episode marathon, and you’ll wonder why no one watched it and you’ll wish there was a Season Two. … I always understood why people didn’t watch Rubicon. But Terriers not only deserved a larger audience, it would reward that audience.”

Boardwalk Empire. “’We all have to decide for ourselves,’ Nucky says, ‘how much sin we can live with.’ No one in Boardwalk Empire is without sin; the series is about the compromises people make as they decide how much sin is tolerable. If the series was only about bad people doing bad things, it would get boring fairly quickly. If it was about good people doing good things, also boring. But when the question is ‘how much sin can you live with,’ then you’ve got a television series, as the characters move into and out of sinful behavior, always evaluating themselves, sometimes doing better, sometimes falling back. But the world of Boardwalk Empire is a world of sin, there is no escaping, there are only realists and fantasists (most people think they are the former but are, as often as not, the latter …”

The Walking Dead. “It’s tempting to point to The Walking Dead as evidence for why Terriers was cancelled. The Walking Dead got very good ratings … in the neighborhood of ten times as many people watched it as watched Terriers. As FX honcho John Landgraf said, when discussing the cancellation of a show he clearly liked, ‘I don't think subtlety is something the American public is buying in droves today.’ The Walking Dead is not subtle. This sounds like I’m dissing The Walking Dead, but really I’m just mourning the loss of a better show. The Walking Dead is very good at what it does, and what it does seems to be popular, so it will return for a second season.”

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