Monday, January 6, 2014

Community is back – for real this time

Season 5 Episodes 1 & 2 – "Repilot" and "Introduction to Teaching"

Other than belonging to the same series, there's exactly one thing I see in common between Community's fourth and fifth season premieres, "History 101" and "Repilot": You can see the sweat on their brows. Some Community episodes have a relaxed, easygoing vibe to them – and plenty of entire sitcoms, including most of TV's highest-rated, are always relaxed and easygoing – but sometimes Community is working really, really hard, and both of these episodes fall in the latter category.

Difference is that in the fourth season premiere, with Dan Harmon in the wind, the new producers were working hard at proving Community was still Community by throwing as much of what they saw as "Community-type stuff" at the screen as possible: An extended Hunger Games spoof, an extended Inception spoof, an animated Muppet Babies spoof, a laugh track-scored multicamera sitcom spoof, and lots of Community recurring characters and catchphrases, all layered in on each other and crammed into 22 minutes. And whatever your stance on "History 101" – I neither hated nor loved it – no one can deny that Guarascio and Port were working incredibly hard to placate the fanbase and assure them that Community hadn't gone mainstream.

(Whether they were still working hard by the time "Advanced Introduction to Finality" rolled around is a whole different thing, and based on the evidence my theory would have to be "No.")

"Repilot" is also clearly the end result of dozens of rewrites, but otherwise exactly the opposite: A quasi-bottle episode set mostly around the study room table; one of the quietest, most down-to-earth, low-key and purely emotionally-driven of Community's 86 episodes to date. It has jokes, but they all stem from dialogue and character give or take a robot fight and table bursting aflame, and pop culture references, but no outright spoof (unless you count the perfectly-placed Zach Braff Scrubs voiceover narration at the end). Like Guarascio and Port, Dan Harmon is here to prove that Community is still Community, but rather than with wackiness, he's doing so through character and emotion – which ultimately proves superior.

Where all the effort comes in is right there in the title; in the repiloting. In introducing a whole new premise and status quo and new and surprisingly dark and despairing beginnings for these characters to relaunch from. The episode feels subdued, but under the surface there's a million engine parts cranking as the show bends over backwards to get the Greendale Seven Six home in 22 minutes without it being stupid as hell. And it would have been a real episode-killer for me and weak, uncompelling writing if the study group had returned to Greendale for no other reason than that they missed it and loved each other.

But that's why the lawsuit concept Harmon has come up with is great: Though Jeff Winger now loves these people, the lawsuit allows him to nevertheless again become the deceptive snake in the grass trying to get something from them he was way back in the show's original pilot. It tears at these people's bonds and threatens the school's very existence not with paintball war or zombies but with a piece of paper. In a word, stakes, something Harmon has always excelled at. So when the study group finally comes together and builds Table Mk II, it really means something, as Jeff, Britta, Troy, Annie, Abed and Shirley have made it through a gauntlet of real emotional darkness.

When you've accomplished that much in your plotting and character work and emotion, the fact that "Repilot" is also stuffed full of funny jokes and quotes and has a Pierce Hawthorne cameo is just kinda icing on the cake. It's not quite season 2's "Anthropology 101" (for my money, damn near the best season premiere for a live-action sitcom ever), but it's a damn good episode of Community.

Season 5's second outing, "Introduction to Teaching," also has a bit of work to do in its introduction of criminology professor Buzz Hickey, played by Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks. And it does it well, establishing Buzz's intimidating exterior, uncertain/aspiring cartoonist interior and new place in the group quickly, efficiently and entertainingly, straight through to the simultaneously dark and goofily hilarious end tag. The fact that Banks proves an instantly great sitcom actor – something not necessarily true of every badass guest from dramatic cable TV Community has brought in – sure helps too.

But beyond that splash of laying the groundwork – certainly less intense than "Repilot" in that regard – "Introduction to Teaching" is Dan Harmon proving that he can still do a relaxed, easy-viewing half-hour about Greendale antics and classroom shenanigans and wacky teachers and pop culture discussion without any high concept or needing to spoof anything. It's totally in the spirit of season 1 episodes like "Beginner Pottery" and "Physical Education" or season 2's "Competitive Wine Tasting." And, after a near-complete lack of classroom antics in season 4 (the history class in "Alternative History of the German Invasion" and the physical education education in "Economics of Marine Biology" are all I can come up with, and neither of those stories were that great), it's a nice skin to see Community back in.

When Community draws to its end, neither "Repilot" or "Introduction to Teaching" are likely to top many people's best-of lists (though "Repilot" probably deserves to be high up on a most-important list), but I loved them all the same because the show's voice is back. The rhythms of the jokes and dialogue and editing are back. Jeff's cockiness and Abed's references feel like they used to again. Annie is once again a driven go-getter and not just Jeff's romantic interest. Without Dan Harmon, Community was an ice cream sundae minus the ice cream – the cherries and syrup and sprinkles and nuts may taste good, but they aren't why anyone ordered the damn thing. And with Community's feet back under it, I look forward to seeing what strange and compelling new ice cream flavors Harmon can show us next.

Odds and ends:

• One thing I'm not sure I liked? Shirley having lost her job, her husband, her kids and her dreams (and 166 episodes of Bones) in the space between seasons 4 and 5. I'm all for emotional stakes, but... christ. That is really, really dark. Like, that's genuinely upsetting stuff. Maybe it should just have been Shirley's Sandwiches failing?

• I'm curious to see if the story with the collapsing bridge and Marvin Humphries and the lawsuit against Greendale is over and done with or if it comes up again later this season. It does seem like kind of a big deal, and could serve as a way to tie the season together.

• I admired the cinematography here, with the moody, almost dramatic-television lighting of "Repilot" reflecting the character's emotional states and giving way to something brighter and cheerier in "Introduction to Teaching." (Also on the visual front, I liked the wide, long establishing shot of the entire campus after the credits in "Repilot." It was a breath of fresh air after the claustrophobic "Advanced Introduction to Finality.")

• For the record, Adaptation pushes me just over into the "good" column in the Nicolas Cage debate. Without that movie I'd probably be just as confused as Abed. Adaptation or no, nothing changes the fact that Knowing is one of the very worst movies I've seen in a theater in the last five years.

Favorite line: In "Repilot," Annie and Britta's exchange: "At least the drugs I sell don't get slurped out of my belly button!" "THAT'S ONLY ON TUMMY TUESDAYS!" In "Introduction to Teaching," Buzz Hickey to Leonard: "Go and get your earring, you piece of human garbage." However, my all-around favorite joke was not a line, but the visual gag of Table Mk II getting an F in birdhouse class.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Greendale Is Where Tim Belongs, Episode 1/2: "Repilot" & "Introduction to Teaching"

Welcome back Human Beings! Today I'm launching a new podcast, Greendale Is Where Tim Belongs, a weekly audio review of Community season 5 starting with Thursday's two-episode premiere event, "Repilot" and "Introduction to Teaching." This is my first attempt at reviewing a half-hour sitcom in the audio format, so pardons if this debut outing is a tad rough and recap-y. Thankfully, Greendale accepts us and our podcasts, flaws and all.

Greendale Is Where Tim Belongs, Episode 1/2: "Repilot" and "Introduction to Teaching"

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Best TV Episodes, December 2013

(I'm pretty burned out from the collective 14,557 words I wrote for my end-of-2013 lists over the last couple weeks, so I'm gonna keep this month's Best TV Episodes feature short and sweet. I know I said the same thing almost verbatim a year ago, but this time I really mean it! I just need a break from typing, you guys.)

10. Supernatural, Season 9 Episode 9 - "Holy Terror"

I've learned from perusing forums and Tumblr that a lot of Supernatural fans were less than thrilled with the Ezekiel-related shock twist at the end of this midseason finale. But what can I say? I dig it. I love when a show pulls the rug out from under me.

9. Arrow, Season 2 Episode 9 - "Three Ghosts"

Great, emotional, action-packed midseason finale with an awesome final reveal. Seeing Oliver Queen put on the proper Green Arrow mask for the first time gave goosebumps even to me, someone who never gave first fuck about the Green Arrow before watching this show.

8. Bob's Burgers, Season 4 Episode 7 - "Bob and Deliver"

Stories that put Tina and Bob Belcher together almost always delight, as do stories set at Wagstaff School, so making Bob the substitute teacher for Tina's cooking class was unsurprisingly funny and charming.

7. Scandal, Season 3 Episode 10 - "A Door Marked Exit"

This episode is almost entirely ranked this high for Papa Pope's "You are a boy!" monologue to Fitz. The rest of the episode was pretty good; not mind-blowing. But that monologue is some of my favorite TV dialogue of 2013.

6. American Dad, Season 9 Episode 8 - "Minstrel Krampus"

American Dad culled together lesser-known Christmas mythology, imagery and themes from Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin, and some good old climactic ultraviolence for what is probably my favorite explicitly Christmas-themed TV episode of 2013.

5. Awkward, Season 3 Episode 20 - "Who I Want to Be"

As a kinda-sorta series finale (Awkward is coming back next year, but showrunner Lauren Iungerich and her very idiosyncratic voice are out, sinking my enthusiasm for the show by about 95%), "Who I Want to Be" put a satisfying emotional button on three years of this warm, witty high school sitcom.

4. Homeland, Season 3 Episode 12 - "The Star"

I actually felt things – emotions, and all that! – during "The Star," which basically by default makes it the best hour of Homeland's third season. I also appreciate that it followed the season's story through to its only logical conclusion and didn't punk out like the show has in the past.

3. The Walking Dead, Season 4 Episode 8 - "Too Far Gone"

Oh, ok, so here's the awesome zombie spectacle the rest of America apparently sees in The Walking Dead every week as to make it TV's highest-rated scripted show, in the form of the big Team Rick vs. Governor battle we never got at the end of season 3. Now if I could only see The Walking Dead deliver such visceral thrills more than once a year. Baby steps!

2. Arrow, Season 2 Episode 8 - "The Scientist"

I put maybe sixty seconds of thought in my entire life towards the existence of superhero the Flash before watching "The Scientist," so it's a big compliment that I came out the other end a big and instant fan of Barry Allen, hopeful to see him more in Arrow in 2014 and already ready for next fall's Flash spinoff. Great, fun character.

1. American Dad, Season 9 Episode 6 - "Independent Movie"

I'll quote myself from my American Dad writeup a few days ago: "For the record, American Dad and Bob's Burgers were neck and neck in these rankings – the latter even a touch ahead – until Dad's December 1st episode "Independent Movie," a sendup of indie coming-of-age flicks and the Fox Searchlight formula that calls to mind Galaxy Quest and "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" in how note-perfect a spoof it is." Yep. That's pretty much it!

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Top Ten TV Episodes of 2013

You know my fifty favorite TV shows of 2013. Here are my favorite individual episodes. Now, for the record, there are many, many more episodes I wanted to include – the fact that Hannibal, Bunheads, Bob's Burgers, Justified, Scandal, Arrested Development and 30 Rock are all excluded from this list pains me. But if I cracked the doors a little more this would suddenly go from a ten-plus-episode list to a hundred-episode list, so I had to keep this club just a bit exclusive. Starting with a few runners-up I couldn't not mention, then rolling right into the top ten (with episode blurbs adapted from what I previously wrote in my monthly Best TV Episodes lists):

Runners-Up (alphabetical by show): Fringe, Season 5 Episode 13 - "An Enemy of Fate," Futurama, Season 7 Episode 26 - "Meanwhile," Game of Thrones, Season 3 Episode 4 - "And Now His Watch Is Ended," Orange Is the New Black, Season 1 Episode 11 - "Tall Men With Feelings," Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 6 - "Spoils of War," Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 8 - "Separate Paths"

10. Arrow, Season 1 Episode 23 - "Sacrifice"

Arrow had hands-down the best network season finale this spring. "Sacrifice" almost had a Buffy's "The Gift"-esque hugeness in scale and sheer climactic feel to it as Starling City began literally crumbling under the influence of the season's overarching supervillain plot. And Arrow didn't just tell, but showed buildings collapsing and streets imploding and anarchy abound, and it was huge and frightful and awesome. The episode had operatic, outsized action and emotion and a twist that floored me in its final minutes. "Sacrifice" is exactly what a pulpy action/adventure TV serial should look like.

9. Parenthood, Season 4 Episode 13 - "Small Victories"

"Small Victories" was a fantastic, achingly emotional hour of Parenthood that "took on" the abortion issue by refusing to "take it on" at all, instead depicting something overly politicized as the deeply personal choice it is. And the relative heaviness of that story was balanced by a comedic B-plot about body odor and pubic hair that had me laughing embarrassingly loud. This episode succinctly sums up everything that is good and vital about Parenthood.

8. Breaking Bad, Season 5 Episode 16 - "Felina"

(Spoilers follow!) Part of what makes Breaking Bad great (and stand out in contrast against most attempts at "quality television" that have followed) is that, for all its darkness and misery and its focus on consequences and its character arcs of supreme, literary power, it can be a really, really fun show with thick veins of pulp running through it. Always has been, from Walt destroying Tuco's office with magic bomb crystals to several instances of cool guys not looking at explosions to the half-Terminator/half-Anton Chigurh Salamanca twins to Two-Face Gus Fring fixing his tie before dying. And it's in that spirit that one of dramatic television's great narratives ends with its protagonist building and deploying a Nazi-killing robot. Awesome!

7. Game of Thrones, Season 3 Episode 9 - "The Rains of Castamere"

After patiently holding it in for three years, being able to finally shout "RED WEDDING RED WEDDING RED WEDDING RED WEDDING!!!!!" at the top of my lungs across every corner of the internet felt so very, very good. I have nothing to add to the discussion surrounding this episode's infinitely-dissected final ten minutes (beyond one last good old-fashioned "Holy fucking shit!"), but even outside of that iconic, unforgettable sequence it was a great hour for the Jon Snow, Arya and Daenerys storylines too. It's an episode worthy of being called the spiritual successor to season 1's "Baelor."

6. American Dad, Season 8 Episode 18 - "Lost In Space"

Detaching entirely from the titular American dad and core Smith family, "Lost In Space" follows alien prisoner Jeff Fischer to a space station above Roger's home planet, where he tries to figure out how to escape captivity in a big, stylish, intergalactic musical action-adventure comedy extravaganza that might just be the year's most purely ambitious sitcom episode. It almost felt like a whole space opera compressed into 22 minutes (with jokes), complete with impressive alien design and massive, complicated "sets" that showed a hell of a lot of visual imagination. It had emotional depth and a bittersweet, melancholy ending you'd never associate with the MacFarlane animation empire.

5. Switched at Birth, Season 2 Episode 9 - "Uprising"

I mostly just think of ABC Family's Switched at Birth as a teen drama – a far above-average one, but just a teen drama regardless – so it was a pleasant surprise to see them produce this formally and emotionally ambitious hour. The students of Carlton School for the Deaf rise up in an occupation protest when the city moves to shut their school down, which is, except for a few spoken lines at the episode's beginning and one more at its end, depicted entirely in silence with nothing but subtitled sign language to better reflect the viewpoint of the deaf characters. It was unique and ballsy, but more importantly than having a great gimmick, it had a great gimmick rooted entirely in character, thematically relevant and tied to a strong emotional throughline.

4. Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 9 - "The Dead and the Dying"

Years ago I read about how the real historical Spartacus held his own gladiatorial games to honor a fallen brother, using captured Roman soldiers as gladiators, and I spent all of Spartacus: War of the Damned nervously eyeing the ticking-down episode count, wondering whether or not showrunner Steven DeKnight had just decided to skip this particularly juicy historical nugget. But it turns out, nope, he was just delaying our pleasure, saving one of the show's finest outings for its penultimate installment.

DeKnight tweaked history to bring our heroes into the action (rather than having the Romans fight each other, in the show they fight the former slave/gladiator main characters), and, to be blunt, it was deliriously fucking awesome. In a show that is normally one of the most thoughtful and contemplative and consequence-heavy on television in its depiction of violence, it was enormous fun to see an episode just kick back and let it rip with an hour of pure pump-your-fists-and-cheer-out-loud bloody spectacle for perhaps the first time since Gods of the Arena. Just awesome.

3. Breaking Bad, Season 5 Episode 14 - "Ozymandias"

The crucial flip side of Breaking Bad's deliciously pulpy essence – what raises it from entertainment to televised literature – lies in the darkness, the misery and the consequences on full display in "Ozymandias," which Vince Gilligan himself has declared his masterpiece and the best episode of the series. I'm not 100% sure I'm ready to go that far – I need to rewatch the entire series and see "One Minute" and "Full Measure" and "Crawl Space" and "Face Off" and "Dead Freight" again first – but it is as intense, brutal and harrowing an hour of television as I've ever seen. If "Felina" is the climax to Breaking Bad, the entertaining crime/thriller saga, "Ozymandias" is the climax to Breaking Bad, the bleak tale of a man losing his soul and the horrors he rains upon everyone around him. Beginning to end, "Ozymandias" is an episode about consequences, and karma brought its full fury against Walter White and his family in service of just that.

2. The Legend of Korra, Season 2 Episodes 7 & 8 - "Beginnings" (two-parter)

Easily the best episode (well, technically episodes, but they aired together and go together, so whatever) of The Legend of Korra to date and what would have to be in contention to be called the best episode of the entire Avatar franchise, "Beginnings" took us back to the prehistory of the Avatar world and showed us the life and genesis and battles of Wan, the first Avatar. And, as far as genre prequels go, let's call it the exact opposite of The Phantom Menace: Something great and beautiful and damn near perfect in every way. It enchanted me, it intrigued me, it thrilled me, it moved me, it left me both grinning like a dope and damn near on the cusp of tears. It's basically Korra's stab at a Miyazaki "concept episode," and it does Princess Mononoke proud.

If you were to pluck "Beginnings" from its home on TV and call it a movie, I don't know that I've enjoyed an animated film so much since... god, WALL•E, maybe? Very, very few episodes of television have made me feel giddy and excited and moved and just freaking in awe of the sheer potential of onscreen storytelling like this in years. Maybe ever. The animation? Beautiful, breathtaking. The emotion? Goosebumps all over my body. The action? Immensely badass. The sheer scope of its storytelling? It rivals entire epic fantasy narratives like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in the space of about forty minutes of television. "Beginnings" is TV of mythic power. I love, love, love, love, love it.

1. Spartacus, Season 3 Episode 10 - "Victory"

I've already written and talked about 2013's finest television achievement at arguably excessive length and have little more to add on the subject. But I'll emphasize one last time that Spartacus' finale really had its cake and ate it too, providing a rich emotional feast and the conclusions to years of thoughtful character work and tying a totally satisfying thematic bow on everything while also remembering to give us a final battle sequence that made Game of Thrones' "Blackwater" look like the skirmish at the end of a Hercules: The Legendary Journeys episode. It's one of the best series finales and one of the best episodes of television I've ever seen.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Top Ten TV Shows of 2013

And we arrive at last at the best of the best. This top ten has me more melancholy than last year's, as three of these shows are now gone from the airwaves, resting forever in the annals of TV history, and a couple more are officially getting up there in years. But where there's clouds there's a silver lining, because a few of these shows are yet newborn babes just getting their runs started. On to it:

10. American Dad (Fox)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 8 Episode 18 - "Lost In Space" | Up 2 from 2012

My highest-ranked comedy this year, American Dad – despite being a downright ancient show that's been on since less than a year after I graduated high school – is still swinging for the fences. Oh, it had plenty of bad episodes this year. As many as anything else in my top twenty. But the four or five times a year that its producers really buckle down and decide they want to make something great, they're capable of churning out half-hours of such ambition, imagination and artistry that I bow before them. "Lost In Space," which follows Hayley Smith's kidnapped stoner husband Jeff to the mothership of the aliens who took him, is my favorite sitcom episode of 2013. It packs a whole great animated sci-fi action-comedy musical with its own mythology and epic settings into just 22 minutes, and, even if it weren't funny, would be something to behold on account of sheer scale alone.

For the record, American Dad and Bob's Burgers were neck and neck in these rankings – the latter even a touch ahead – until Dad's December 1st episode "Independent Movie," a sendup of indie coming-of-age flicks and the Fox Searchlight formula that calls to mind Galaxy Quest and "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" in how note-perfect a spoof it is. But the two shows really function as yin and yang; Bob's as the warm and realistic animated sitcom and Dad as the dark and surreal one. I watch both back-to-back every week and they complement each other perfectly. They're milk and cereal, baby.

9. Parenthood (NBC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 4 Episode 13 - "Small Victories" | Down 4 from 2012

I'll admit first thing that Parenthood had its problems this year. This fall, I should really say, as the big albatross around season 5's neck has been Kristina Braverman's mayoral run, something which dragged the show in a very weird West Wing-lite direction that just isn't what I watch this bighearted family drama for at all. I'd almost compare it to the "Landry murders a rapist" subplot in Jason Katims' last show Friday Night Lights in how weirdly perpendicular to the premise of the show it seems (in fact, the parallel is almost spookily exact, with the offending subplots both being introduced in season premieres of each show and wrapped up in episode 9 of the same seasons).

But I'm willing to overlook mayoral shenanigans and top ten Parenthood (yes, "top ten" is a verb now!) the third year running for two reasons: One, that subplot is over. Two – and this is something I can't even say about several shows above Parenthood on this list – I care. You see, I'm a pretty emotionally guarded guy when it comes to fiction and forming true, genuine emotional investments in characters. I'm not generally a crier when watching TV, not a gasper or an applauder or any of that shit. You could count with fingers and toes to spare the number of TV shows ever made where I actually care about the characters on that level. Parenthood is one of those shows. I ache for the characters' pains, I cheer their victories; I'm invested in their lives top-to-bottom with all my heart. And that's why Parenthood, story problems aside, remains one of my favorite shows on television.

8. The Legend of Korra (Nickelodeon)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 2 Episode 7/8 - "Beginnings" | Same Rank as 2012

Oh hey second consecutive show in my top ten that was riddled with pretty significant problems this year! Yes, the first half of Korra's second season is animated by the same studio who does Naruto, whose work is clearly inferior to Studio Mir's. Many episodes are just messes of disconnected subplots. And the season's climactic final battle is won via a deus ex machina that makes the end of The Matrix Revolutions look smartly-foreshadowed and narratively logical.

But then... "Beginnings." The two-part Studio Mir-animated prequel episode that takes us back ten millennia in the Avatar universe to show us the genesis of the Avatar. I'mma be straight with y'all: I fucking love this episode. I love it as much as anything I've seen on TV all year. As much as anything I've seen in a movie theater all year. As much as any sex I've had all year. I love it for how visually inventive it is, and how emotional it is, and how epic in its timeframe and geographical span and impact on this fictional universe it is, and just how narratively and thematically and mythologically satisfying it is. One particular moment at the end (when Raava says "We are bonded forever." and the thirty seconds immediately after) literally gave me goosebumps. I watched this two-parter four times before the next episode hit.

It's time to cut the shit and call "Beginnings" what it is: The best animated medieval fantasy film since Princess Mononoke came out in 1997. A short, roughly 45-minute film, sure. But a masterpiece nonetheless. (Though I will say that Disney's great new princess flick Frozen is no slouch either.) And that's why The Legend of Korra is in my top ten.

7. Arrow (The CW)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 23 - "Sacrifice" | Up 17 from 2012

The CW and former Everwood producer Greg Berlanti's vigilante/superhero drama Arrow is my hands-down, far-and-away, nothing-else-even-in-contention pick for 2013's most improved TV show. Starting in the last few episodes of season 1 and continuing all through season 2, this Green Arrow adaptation stepped it up about twenty notches in almost literally everything from what it was last year: Character development and character dynamics, humor, cinematography, action scenes, excitement, pacing, thematic depth; all now firing on all cylinders. A year ago my overall stance on Arrow was "It's not bad." Today? I count the hours until new episodes and devour each one as a ravenous beast.

That Arrow is a better superhero show than Marvel's Agents of N.C.I.S. S.H.I.E.L.D. goes without saying. While that show futzes about with its disposable little cases of the week, Arrow is a layered, propulsive serial. While that show's wooden cast continues to feel like they're reciting lines at each other, Arrow's characters have become rounded and engaging, with real dynamics. And while that show is restricted to barely even using the Z-list Marvel characters no one's heard of, Arrow delivers the DC Comics goods: Barry Allen (aka The Flash), Black Canary, Deathstroke, China White, Count Vertigo, Deadshot and Solomon Grundy just this year. It's even namedropped Ra's al Ghul! (Though he hasn't appeared yet and when he does it's admittedly pretty damn unlikely he'll be Liam Neeson.)

What may go less without saying – but stands no less true – is that Arrow is the best onscreen superhero story of 2013, period. You can keep your Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel and The Wolverine and Thor: The Dark World. I'll be over here watching Arrow, which is engaging in storytelling more vital than any of them. With a Flash spinoff coming next fall from the same team I can officially say I'm a million times more interested and invested in Greg Berlanti's televised DC Comics universe than Zack Snyder's cinematic one. Fingers crossed we get to see Berlanti's take on Wonder Woman one day.

6. Orange Is the New Black (Netflix)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 11 - "Tall Men With Feelings" | Debuted 2013

I always found Weeds – even its reportedly best seasons – pretty tough to sit through, and after the Girls and The Americans incidents I've become super wary when it comes to TV critics jerking off to new shows all over the internet before they even air. So you'll understand why I was hesitant and held off a few weeks when it came to hitting play on the first episode of Weeds creator Jenji Kohan's new women-in-prison drama Orange Is the New Black, less despite and more because of all the critical adulation.

But hey, stopped clock, twice a day and all that. I eventually did fire up the pilot episode "I Wasn't Ready," and proceeded to inhale the rest of the first season in the space of about a week. Goddamnit if Orange Is the New Black isn't just as good as everyone said.

A lot of why I adore this show probably has to do with tone. In a year when damn near every new non-broadcast drama from The Americans to House of Cards to The Bridge to Low Winter Sun seemed to be trying to one-up all that came before it in how utterly bleak and despairing and joyless it could be, Orange Is the New Black is glorious sunlight bursting through the clouds. It has fleeting moments of darkness and violence, sure, but they're earned, and it is ultimately a show about community, about finding joy in the mundane, about the bonds between us rather than the antihero bullshit that drives us apart. Granted, said bonds are forced on the characters by the shackles of prison, but aren't so many great TV shows about people forced together by circumstance? High school-set teen dramas, workplace sitcoms, and so on – Orange Is the New Black is a new and wonderful spin on classic formula.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Top Fifty TV Shows of 2013: #30 - 11

Alright, so things got a little hairy in the lower echelons of the #50-31 rankings last week. At points I actually felt more like I was writing a "worst of" list than a "best of." But you've reached the light at the end of the tunnel: While I may not consider the twenty shows below to have been among the ten best this year and I have my gripes about each, I can say with confidence that I like every single one of them. Let's get it started in here:

30. The Borgias (Showtime)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 10 - "The Prince" | New to List

Mix one part watered-down Game of Thrones with two-to-three parts The Tudors and you'll end up with Showtime's antihero Pope drama The Borgias, a show never exceptional but almost always pretty good. If you're looking for sex and violence and religion and scheming and sumptuous cinematography and set design and even a couple big battle sequences, it comes recommended, though with the caveat that it got canceled at the end of season 3 with no real, conclusive ending. The show has some problems, including the fact that it never convinced me our ruling-class heroes were the underdogs in any conflict it put them in, but I still wish I could see the fourth season that's never going to happen.

29. Awkward (MTV)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 20 - "Who I Want to Be" | Down 3 from 2012

Lauren Iungerich's droll, witty, energetic high school sitcom Awkward is unfortunately going to be entering its fourth season in 2014 absent one key ingredient: Lauren Iungerich. I'm unclear whether she quit or was pushed out, but one way or another Awkward is going to be missing its voice next year, which makes me fear we're in for a Community season 4 / Gilmore Girls season 7 scenario. But Lauren at least went out strong. Awkward season 3 remains far too obsessed with love triangles (my biggest problem with the show last year too), but takes its protagonist Jenna Hamilton through a dynamic emotional journey and wrapped up its season/year with one of the strongest, most moving episodes of the series.

28. The Office (NBC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 9 Episode 23 - "Finale" | Up 8 from 2012

Like The Walking Dead and The Newsroom, The Office is this high on my list (and up from last year!) on the strength of exactly one episode: Its series finale. I don't think I'm being out-there or controversial when I say this show suffered massively from the loss of Steve Carell, but it remains an eternal fact of my own TV history that The Office was, for about a year or so, more or less my favorite show on television. Those emotional bonds can be fractured but are hard to shake entirely, and as such the emotion of "Finale" was felt deeply. Even Carell's return, while nice, ends up being largely incidental to the impact of the show's quiet and heartfelt final moments. There were literally dozens of Office episodes I found pretty damn bad by the end of its run, but it'll always be a show I remember fondly.

27. New Girl (Fox)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 8 - "Menus" | Down 4 from 2012

Weird fact: I consider New Girl's 2013 run to be superior to its 2012, yet somehow it's lower on my list this year. What's that about? Ranking pedantry aside, what I wrote last year still applies; New Girl was then and remains now "currently the best 'roommates in an apartment in the city' Friends-styled sitcom on the air." Hell, by an even bigger margin now that Happy Endings is dead. This year the show leaned heavily on the Ross/Rachel will-they-won't-they dynamic of Jess and Nick (and, as the above image indicates, answered it: they will), which isn't generally something I watch TV shows for or care about but in this case was mostly charming. Damon Wayans Jr. rejoining season 3 in a semi-regular capacity as Coach – last seen in the pilot! – has also been a boon to the show.

26. Homeland (Showtime)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 12 - "The Star" | Down 13 from 2012

A couple years ago, I reviewed the pilot of Homeland, calling it "the thinking man's 24." Roughly a year after that, I said that the show had lost what made it smart and different and essentially become "24 2." Now I'll offer a second amendment: Homeland is the pretentious man's 24; a twisty terrorism thriller that's mostly about cliffhangers and finding out who's gonna die next, only wearing a "moral examination of the war on terror" suit that, if you look closely, is cheap and ratty and barely holds together. Also, this season's Dana/Leo subplot is one of the shittiest things I saw on TV all year. All that said, the season finale "The Star" is a very good episode of television, one which thankfully has the balls to follow the show's story through to its only logical conclusion. If not for that episode Homeland would probably be ten ranks lower on this list.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Honoring the fallen of 2012's top fifty

Before we continue this year's top fifty countdown, let's take a brief moment to pay tribute to the seventeen shows from last year's top fifty list that, for reasons of not airing any episodes in 2013 due to cancellation/ending/hiatus or just me not liking them as much, failed to retain their top fifty placement this year:

Kicked off from 2012 list

• Once Upon a Time (ABC, #49) - Didn't watch any this year.
• Go On (NBC, #48) - It's like Community, but without the imagination or the funny.
• Adventure Time (CN, #47) - Didn't watch any this year.
 Don't Trust the B in Apt. 23 (ABC, #43) - Quit when it was clear it was about to be canceled.
• Hell on Wheels (AMC, #41) - Dragged its feet too much this season, though the finale was good.
• Last Resort (ABC, #40) - Aired only a few episodes this year and none blew me away.
• Glee (Fox, #39) - Lost me when they started compressing the timeline. It's still set in spring 2013!
• Veep (HBO, #38) - Too cruel, too meanspirited. Made me feel awful. Had to quit.
• Archer (FX, #33) - Not enough imagination on an episode-by-episode basis.
• The Daily Show (Comedy Central, #30) - Not an election year, so I didn't watch much.

Canceled/ended/hiatus from 2012 list

• Sword Art Online (Hulu, #45) - Ended.
• Bent (NBC, #42) - Canceled.
• Chuck (NBC, #34) - Ended.
• Sherlock (PBS, #28) - Hiatus.
• Awake (NBC, #25) - Canceled.
 Louie (FX, #16) - Hiatus.
• The L.A. Complex (The CW, #11) - Canceled.

May they rest in peace. Except Sherlock and Louie, which are back next year; the former in January. Hooray!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tim's TV Talk Drunkcast, Episode 2: 2013 Wrap-Up Spectacular

Welcome to this blog's final podcast of 2013 – and it ain't a sober one. Tim's TV Talk Drunkcast returns for an open-topic second installment that got so rambling and ran so overlong in its recording that the ninety-minute show below contains just over half of the monstrous raw audio file I had on my hands when the recording ended. But if you're interested in a few yearend thoughts on Scandal or Community or Hannibal or Game of Thrones or The Office or the new Hobbit or Hunger Games movies or 12 Years a Slave and even, yes, just a touch of anime talk there at the end, we gotcha covered. Grab a drink and your snack of choice and settle in.

Intro - 0:00:00 - 0:03:24
Hannibal - 0:03:24 - 0:07:10 (major spoilers!)
American Horror Story: Coven - 0:07:19 - 0:08:10
Spartacus: War of the Damned - 0:08:13 - 0:09:40 (major spoilers!)
Game of Thrones - 0:10:10 - 0:15:55 (major spoilers!)
The Legend of Korra - 0:16:15 - 0:17:55 (spoilers)
Bob's Burgers - 0:17:55 - 0:18:45
Sleepy Hollow - 0:18:50 - 0:20:11 (spoilers)
American Dad - 0:20:12 - 0:21:35
The Office - 0:21:35 - 0:23:00
Scandal - 0:24:00 - 0:28:30 (spoilers)
Community - 0:28:34 - 0:36:30
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - 0:37:45 - 0:45:40 (spoilers)
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire - 0:45:45 - 0:48:50 (spoilers)
Thor: The Dark World - 0:49:10 - 0:50:45 (spoilers)
Prisoners - 51:45 - 52:20 and 0:55:14 - 0:56:28 (spoilers)
12 Years a Slave - 52:20 - 0:55:14 and 0:56:33 - 0:56:50 (spoilers)
Ferris Bueller's Day Off - 0:57:12 - 0:58:29
Back to the Future - 0:58:29 - 1:00:24
Die Hard - 1:00:30 - 1:01:10
Arrested Development (season 4) - 1:01:10 - 1:02:30
Spring Breakers - 1:03:17 - 1:05:25
Fruitvale Station - 1:05:26 - 1:05:55
White House Down - 1:06:00 - 1:06:40 (spoilers)
Star Trek Into Darkness - 1:06:50 - 1:07:34
42 - 1:07:35 - 1:07:50
The Shining - 1:07:57 - 1:10:13
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters & A Good Day to Die Hard - 1:10:30 - 1:11:34
Ironside - 1:11:59 - 1:12:20
The Secret Life of the American Teenager - 1:12:30 - 1:17:15
Under the Dome & The Following - 1:17:20 - 1:18:06
Fairy Tail - 1:18:09 - 1:23:20
Nashville - 1:24:29 - 1:24:53
Glee - 1:24:55 - 1:26:01
TV Miscellany (Veronica Mars, Dawson's Creek, Luther, Futurama) - 1:26:15 - 1:29:20
End - 1:29:20 - 1:30:31

Friday, December 20, 2013

Top Fifty TV Shows of 2013: #50 - 31

You bet your ass it's that time of year again. As of this week (as of watching last Monday's Almost Human, to be exact), I've finally seen every episode of every show I wanted to be caught up on before ranking this year's top fifty. To help keep things fresh and spicy I've specified under each show's title and rank both what it's best 2013 episode was and, if it's one of the returning shows from 2012's list, how many ranks it rose or fell from last year. (Last year's lists: #50-31, #30-11, Top Ten.) Let's get to the main event:

50. The Vampire Diaries (The CW)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 4 Episode 15 - "Stand By Me" | Down 35 from 2012

What a remarkable difference 357 days can make, huh? In last year's list I was basically raving about The Vampire Diaries' relentless pacing and high stakes. Now it's slowed to a crawl, bends over backwards to avoid anything that challenges the status quo and is reviving dead characters left and right. The show's story spent essentially all of 2013 walking in a wide, slow circle back to square one. As such, it's gone from a show I couldn't wait for new episodes of to one I leave on in the background while playing iPhone games or doing minor household errands. You'd think The Vampire Diaries of all shows would know to die young and leave a beautiful corpse.

49. Teen Wolf (MTV)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 3 Episode 6 - "Motel California" | Down 12 from 2012

Fun fact: One of the dozen or so half-written but never finished posts in this blog's backlog is a rave for season 1 of Teen Wolf, calling it better than you'd assume. And it still might be, but no longer that much better. Essentially a poor, poor, poor man's Buffy, the show is a sometimes amusing, never exceptional genre serial about beautiful teen werewolves fighting supernatural villains in their small town while juggling school and romance. Probably the best thing it has going for it is Dylan O'Brien as the protagonist's dorky non-werewolf best friend (i.e. the Xander Harris). His comic timing is remarkably sharp and should hopefully propel him onto a great sitcom when Teen Wolf ends.

48. Gravity Falls (Disney)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 16 - "Carpet Diem" | Down 19 from 2012

I noted a year ago that Gravity Falls was getting better as it went along and that "if this quality incline continues, I could see Gravity Falls shooting way up on my 2013 list." And, well, looks like I forgot to knock on wood. My four favorite episodes from 2012 – "Double Dipper," "The Time Traveler's Pig," "Fight Fighters" and "Summerween" – are still my four favorite episodes of this paranormal animated sitcom, with nothing this year hitting their level. But that doesn't mean the show isn't still reasonably funny and clever and pleasant to look at. The body-swapping episode "Carpet Diem" is a lot of fun.

47. Defiance (Syfy)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 1 Episode 12 - "Past Is Prologue" | Debuted 2013

I adore the idea of Defiance: An unapologetic '90s-style sci-fi throwback that would have fit seamlessly alongside Stargate and Babylon 5 and Star Trek: TNG. Unfortunately its sci-fi/Western mashup gunslinging vibe and sarcastic rogue Han Solo-ish hero make it impossible not to compare it to Firefly, and, uh, it obviously comes up wanting. But for a nerd such as myself there's still a lot to love in its elaborate mythology and various alien races. The storytelling and action only occasionally rise above "serviceable," though.

46. Revenge (ABC)
Best 2013 Episode: Season 2 Episode 14 - "Sacrifice" | Down 24 from 2012

Like The Vampire Diaries, I'm digging Revenge's vibe way less than I was a year ago. Truth be told, I'm ready for Emily Thorne's true identity and motives to come to light for all the world to see and for her to finally and fully take her revenge and the show to wrap up, and if that doesn't happen by the end of season 4 I honestly don't know if I'll want to keep going. That said, Revenge can still bust out a fun cliffhanger and Gabriel Mann's snarky bisexual hacker/computer genius Nolan Ross remains a great, unendingly entertaining character.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Top Ten Worst TV Shows of 2013

Welcome to my very first worst TV shows of the year list – not just here on Tim's TV Talk, but literally anywhere on the internet, ever! We're breaking new, gratuitously hostile ground here, people. I know you feel that electricity.

I'm not going to waste your time with a bunch of preamble to this very straightforward list, but the one caveat I'll make is that there's plenty of shows I loathe but didn't watch a single episode of this year – Two and a Half Men would be the quickest and most obvious example, though nowhere near the only one – and since I want to be honest in my scorn, those shows are exempt from this list. I didn't watch them, so I don't know how bad they were. So, starting with the year's most disappointing show, then its tenth worst and counting down to the biggest televised turd of 2013:

Most Disappointing: Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 10 (all)

Talk about a show that had every single goddamned thing going for it. Executive producer Joss Whedon, writer/director of The Avengers and more importantly creator of three of the greatest genre shows – hell, shows, period – ever made: Buffy, Angel and Firefly. Showrunners Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen and Jeffrey Bell, all three late of Spartacus and with Angel and Dollhouse experience under their belts. An already-established sci-fi/fantasy universe lousy with heroes, villains, aliens, monsters, magic, gods, superpowers, alternate dimensions. The enthusiastic backing of their network, money, hype and probably access to any number of fine actors. And with all this we get... NCIS with constant references to the "Battle of New York." Not to mention terrible dialogue, a cast devoid of chemistry or charm, flat, often brutally ugly lighting and cinematography and dull cases that make zero use of this rich universe. I had hoped Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. could be the new Firefly. Turns out it's the new Studio 60: All hype, nothing there.

10. Under the Dome (CBS)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 13 (all)

Given how angry and frustrated I was with Lost by the end of its run – and if you don't know or forgot, here's a not-so-quick refresher – it's saying something when I call Under the Dome the shitty version of Lost. Not the shitty version of Lost's better seasons, mind you. The shitty version of Lost's already-rotten final season: Dull (and in many cases horribly acted – yes, I'm looking at you, Junior) characters stumbling around a generic genre serial that piled endless vague, riddle-like mysteries on top of each other only to end the season with a jumble of cartoonish nonsense that answered nothing. Under the Dome isn't the worst show on this list, but it may be 2013 TV's finest example of incompetent storytelling.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Tim's TV Talk Podcast, Episode 10: Korrahood (aka Bring On the Cheese!)

Fans of both action-adventure fantasy cartoons and bighearted family dramas should be in heaven this week as Tim's TV Talk Podcast returns to discuss The Legend of Korra's second season finale arc and Parenthood's fifth season thus far. Fans of just one may not be in heaven, but since the timecodes below will help you skip to your show, that's at least worth a solid purgatory. Fans of neither, I'm sad to report, now languish in hell.

There's a 99% chance this will be the last "regular" installment of Tim's TV Talk Podcast this year, and I'm pleased I was able to hit the nice round number of ten episodes (and, for the record, the most discussed shows this year were Spartacus and Parenthood at two podcasts each, The Legend of Korra with three and finally Hannibal with a remarkable four). There was also one episode of Tim's TV Talk Drunkcast, and, well... stay tuned for one final podcast this year, hopefully by the end of next week. I'll leave it at that.

Enough foreplay. On with the show!

Podcast timecodes:

Intro - 0:00 - 0:55

The Legend of Korra - 0:55 - 19:25 (spoilers through season 2 finale)

Parenthood - 19:25 - 39:22 (spoilers through season 5 episode 9)

End - 39:22 - end