I haven’t written a round-up on television in 10 years. Which is strange because I watch a fair amount of television. As someone who used to want to be a screenwriter, television has always fascinated me because it provides such ample opportunity to explore humanity. I enjoy tremendously watching characters develop over time.
And even though I remain frustrated with the lack of great roles for black actors on television and with the way diversity on television is horribly superficial and disingenuous (its stupid, insulting emphasis on so-called race-blind casting makes me want to throw my television at the wall) there is still quite a lot to enjoy.
Here are the 11 shows that most thrilled me this year, after the jump.
I am loving Nashville for the same reason that I love Bones: it’s a procedural that cares deeply about character development. This is really about the making of country music and the intricacies of that – from the way Hayden Panettierre’s Juliette wants to be less a cog in the corporate wheel to the way that Connie Britton’s Rayna is rediscovering her love of the work by using her power to shake up her career – are truly fascinating to watch. I admire the way the show has so beautifully built the world of country musicians, even as I worry that it’s not as attuned to the political world of Nashville that is taking up an increasing amount of screen time. That worry is held at bay (for the moment) by a fine ensemble led by the one-two punch of Connie Britton and Hayden Panettierre and by the fact that the show is so new. I’m hoping the world-building here sharpens, deepens and that the soapier elements remain firmly rooted in who each of these fascinating people truly are.
Though I’m increasingly concerned with the way its second season is unfolding, I’m putting Scandal on the list because I very much enjoyed it’s short first season and I think the acting is strong (even by the actresses playing the idiotic and unnecessary characters of Quinn and Abby who should be written out NOW). I recognize that the show is what it is, but it bothers me that this is a show about a brilliant black woman who (perhaps unwittingly?) helped steal an election for a Republican. That’s troubling subtext and I wish the show would just acknowledge that Olivia Pope is a black woman (and not in a cheap, tawdry way like the recent invocation of Sally Hemmings). I don’t know if the fact that Kerry Washington’s Olivia and Tony Goldwyn’s President Grant weren’t active, conscious participants in this plot makes it better or is just part and parcel of the way that Shonda Rhimes doesn’t like to consciously complicate her characters even though they are horrible people who do horrible things. I will continue to watch for one reason – and one reason only – Guillermo Diaz’ work as Huck. It’s remarkably detailed and sensitive and the character is the single best, most fascinating thing about the show.
Arrow is my favorite show of the new season. Hands down. I’m enjoying the world of Starling City tremendously. I enjoy that Oliver Queen is having to struggle with and confront his brutality, even as he remains relatively sure about the reasons why he has become so brutal. I enjoy Stephen Amell’s performance a lot, but I’m most fascinated by Susanna Thompson’s Moira and whatever it is that has her entangled with John Barrowman’s Malcolm Merlyn. Speaking of, this show is perfect for Barrowman’s slightly campy acting style and, as such, he’s far more interesting to watch than he ever was at the center of Torchwood. I’d like to see the show better develop it’s two leading ladies Laurel (Katie Cassidy) and Thea (Willa Holland), but given how assured the show has been to date I’m willing to bet that this will happen.
The plotting in Season Two of Revenge is getting a bit convoluted and unwieldy, but that isn’t actually detracting as much from my enjoyment of the show as it would ordinarily. I think it’s because even though Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke is embroiled in this huge world, her motivation is the same: to avenge her father. That single-minded focus has been a benefit to lead actress Emily VanCamp, who I initially thought was out of her depth but now recognize is just playing that focus to the exclusion of everything else. It’s perhaps not a choice I would have made, but it’s a strong one and it does anchor the show. Luckily, she’s surrounded by a terrific ensemble that is only becoming more interesting in the second season. Revenge is a simple, fun show, but it’s not stupid, insulting or exploitative. I think it deserves tremendous credit for that.
I love Merlin because it’s the best love story on television. The deep friendship between Merlin and Arthur on this show is as powerful as any romantic love that any other show is currently depicting. We really don’t get the opportunity to see adult male friendships on television – and even when we do the suggestion of love between the two is almost always played for laughs or sexual insecurity. Not here. Everyone in the world of Merlin knows and admires Merlin and Arthur both for their devotion to one another. That’s…dope. The chemistry between Colin Morgan and Bradley James is terrific and both actors have done a tremendous job creating these two fascinating men. James, in particular, has done really great work showing both the weight that he feels being the king of Camelot and the way that his relationship with Merlin allows him precious few moments to relax and just…be.
I don’t think Supernatural gets the credit that it so richly deserves for being the deeply spiritual show that it is. At its core, this is a show about faith. About Dean’s (Jensen Ackles, doing some of the best acting on television, bar none) faith that what he and his brother Sam (Jared Padalecki) are doing is just. About Sam’s lack of faith because so much of his life has been predestined and out of his control. About Castiel’s (the dope Misha Collins) crumbling faith because he made a huge mistake. I think Supernatural has been the best genre show that everyone has been ignoring as they trip over themselves to praise Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones (two great shows to be sure). This is a shame, because it’s been just about the most consistent show of its type for as long as its been on the air, something that Battlestar (with its horrible last two seasons) certainly cannot claim.
Suits became great fun in its second season this summer primarily because it stopped being a show about the two boring white dudes and the deception at the center and started becoming an ensemble about these colleagues trying to protect their boss (played incredibly well by the incomparable Gina Torres) from a hostile takeover. The writers and producers smartly realized that Torres and that Rick Hoffman’s weasely Louis Litt were the best parts about the show and found a smart, commonsense way to bring them into focus. I like that the show isn’t afraid to make Torres’ Jessica occasionally unlikable. I like that she’s allowed to be glamorous and complicated in a way that I wish Olivia Pope was. For all these reasons, Suits surpassed White Collar to become my favorite USA show and one of my favorite shows to watch this year.
I like that Bones is a show about nerds and the cool kid that loves them. I like that Bones is actually a better show now that Booth (the criminally underappreciated and always amazing David Boreanaz) and Brennan (the equally as talented and remarkable Emily Deschanel) are finally together as a couple and raising their infant daughter. I love that the banter between them has a newfound weight and isn’t just cute. I love that they continually push each other to be their best selves. And I love that these weird, socially awkward people are getting to grow and change and learn and be funny. I wish Hart Hanson wasn’t so in love with the procedural elements though. It’s when big bads like the Gormogon, The Grave Digger, and most recently, Pelant are terrorizing these fascinating individuals that the show snaps into focus, the actors do their very best work, and the characters become even more thrilling to watch. Even so, Bones remains one of my favorite shows.
If I had only been able to watch conversations between Lena Headey’s Cersei and Sophie Turner’s Sansa, as well as Maisie Williams’ Arya and Charles Dance’s Tywin, I’d still think that Game of Thrones was one of the finest shows on television. Luckily, we also got to see more of Peter Dinklage as Tyrion, more of the stunningly beautiful Kit Harington as Jon Snow, and got a few really cool battle scenes. Some of the changes from the book did trouble me – particularly the way that Daenerys is completely neutered – and do make me wonder how the rest of the books will be changed to accommodate what’s been done, but I can’t get past the overall feeling that the show did a terrific job adapting the weakest and most dramatically inert book in the series into eminently watchable television.
I started watching The Vampire Diaries because I really enjoy genre shows, but I kept watching it because I like that it’s a show about this ragtag family of people who don’t always like each other but need each other. I have never much cared for the central romantic triangle of Damon/Elena/Stefan because I’m just not a shipper and because this is such conventional stuff, so I’ve enjoyed how the show has become as much about Caroline and Tyler and Jeremy and Klaus and Bonnie as it is about who the hell Elena will end up with. I don’t think any show has more assured, break-neck speed plotting than The Vampire Diaries. This is a show that is unafraid to keep things constantly moving, to shift allegiances, to kill beloved characters (like Matt Davis’ Alaric) in order to keep the characters constantly growing and the story fresh. Everyone on this show does terrific work, but I am endlessly fascinated with the work of Candice Accola as Caroline Forbes and Michael Trevino as Tyler Lockwood. They are routinely as finely tuned as Nina Dobrev in her multiple roles as Elena/Katherine, and they get to have a lot more fun. I dislike the Elena sire bond story enough that I’m a little worried about this season, but the show has built up enough trust that I’m still curious to see how it all plays out.
I think the reason the unrelenting whiteness of Mad Men doesn’t bother me in the way that it does on Breaking Bad or Justified or Sons of Anarchy is that it isn’t romanticized at all. The show is not, contrary to popular criticism, lionizing a bygone era. Mad Men is about a time when white male Protestantism starts to lose its hegemony over America. I love watching that unfold. Those other three shows are much more consciously interested in lamenting such a thing and, as a result, lionizing white maleness in a way that I find really uncomfortable to watch. As a result, I never understood the way entertainment media has written about this show as if people should admire and identify with Don Draper or Roger Sterling and should hate Betty Draper (yes I’m still mad that January Jones didn’t win the Emmy for her work in the show’s third season). Sure they look good, but their white male entitlement is disgusting. The show knows this and does a terrific job exploring how that entitlement is losing its cache. Season Five didn’t feel any less great to me than the previous season partially because it feels like it kicked all of this into overdrive. Don Draper is a shell of the man he was in Season One and he doesn’t even know it. I love it.