Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Returning Shows My Opinion Has Changed the Most on in 2012

Part of what makes television criticism livelier and in my opinion a bit more fun than film criticism is that it ain't static. A film, be it great, shit, or anything in between, is ultimately a completed work, a dead thing. Your opinion might shift gradually if you revisit it in years to come, but that's almost always a glacial process. A TV show on the other hand never stops moving and evolving, and you can find mild enthusiasm blooming into intense love or apathy curdling into hate very rapidly – or even enthusiasm into hate or apathy into love – and then back again within weeks. It's a veritable roller coaster of emotions.

It's in that spirit that I come to you in the waning weeks of 2012 to compare and contrast how I feel about shows today compared to how I felt about them on the cold dawn of January 1st. There are a number of shows that I like just a tiny bit more (Parenthood, Spartacus) or just a tiny bit less (Justified, Game of Thrones) than I did in 2011, but this is a space to explore the more dramatic shifts. Except for the top one or two, the rankings here are mostly pretty arbitrary, so don't take 'em too serious. I've color-coded my opinion shifts for maximum clarity: Blue indicates shows I like more now than I did in 2011, red shows I like less. Enough preamble, on to the fun:

10. New Girl (Fox)

Direction of shift: Mostly neutral to mostly positive

I kind of enjoyed New Girl's first half-season in 2011, but back then it it was just a sitcom, one with no real thematic ambitions beyond "here's some friends living in an apartment, laugh at their antics." Oh, and "adorkable." But in 2012, adorkability melted away to reveal a show that's a bit more interested in examining the psychological toil of turning 30 and realizing you've barely begun to accomplish. It even put out a near-great episode in "Injured," involving a cancer scare. It's not one of my favorite shows and probably never will be, but it's the only sitcom to have premiered in the last year and a half that I've stuck with beyond ten episodes, so kudos for that if nothing else.

9. Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Direction of shift: Very strongly positive to moderately positive

Now, I don't want to give the impression that I in any way dislike Parks and Recreation – it remains one of the three or four best live-action comedies on television, and it's in my top 20 shows of the year. But it is clear at this point that the near-perfect sixteen-episode third season was the pinnacle of the series, and while the show's 21 episodes this year have almost all been amusing, only five or six – most of them at the end of season 4's election arc – have been truly notable, with "Pawnee Commons" being the only episode this fall I've been particularly enthusiastic about. I still really like the show, but I'm not sure I love it anymore.

8. Awkward (MTV)

Direction of shift: Very positive to hesitantly positive

I wrote about a year ago that Awkward's highly entertaining debut season was "not necessarily doing anything that teen movies haven't been since the 80s, but it's an exercise in high school underdog formula executed with remarkably fresh, youthful, and sometimes cheerfully vulgar energy." And that was true! What I didn't mention was the love triangle involving lead character Jenna Hamilton that constituted a small part of season 1, because, frankly, I mostly forgot about it. Then in season 2, said love triangle suddenly became the entire show. It was all anyone talked about, ever, and it smothered everything else. I still like Awkward's vibe, performances, and dialogue, but I was not a fan of season 2's story at all.

7. The Walking Dead (AMC)

Direction of shift: Intensely negative to leaning positive

I didn't do a "top ten worst shows of 2011" list, but I can say without hyperbole that if I had, The Walking Dead would have been on it. The first half of season 2's farm arc was absolutely some of the worst, most aggressively boring, actually angering television I'd ever seen. I felt like a sucker for having ever said anything good about the show. The second half of season 2 was definitely a bit better, if still not exactly good, but after getting the fuck out of that farm season 3 has been a marked improvement. Still not masterpiece television, though it did put out a stellar episode in "Killer Within," and there's been more danger, excitement, and plot momentum in each episode this fall than the entire first half of season 2 combined. I'll shout it from the highest rooftops: I don't hate The Walking Dead anymore!

6. Archer (FX)

Direction of shift: Very strongly positive to mildly positive

I was on such an Archer high from having just watched its first two seasons in one long marathon that I actually put it on my top ten shows of 2011 (though in retrospect and having come down from my high, I probably should have gone with Fringe instead). In contrast, this year, the last four episodes of season 3 sat recorded and unwatched by me for two months. I continue to enjoy some of the goofy spy missions, H. Jon Benjamin's vocal performance as Sterling Archer, and the episode "Lo Scandalo" (and when I finally got around to watching the final episodes, I actually did really like the "Space Race" two-parter), but at a certain point the "the final line of this scene cleverly sounds like it's being responded to by the first line of the next scene" writing quirk really started to grate, and my spirit was worn down by the oppressive, joyless hostility between the characters.

5. American Horror Story (FX)

Direction of shift: A bit positive to strongly negative

This is definitely one of those "Am I living in the Twilight Zone?" situations for me. All through season 1, TV critics the internet over were just shitting on American Horror Story. Meanwhile, I dunno, I thought it was a pretty charming little haunted house story! It paired a streamlined, uncomplicated approach to narrative with a fun kitchen-sink approach to mythology, and a nice performance from Taissa Farmiga anchored it. And now, critics are unanimous that season 2, subtitled Asylum, is a huge improvement. And it's not! It's fucking not! The charm is utterly gone, I couldn't care less about any of the characters, and the plot and mythology are a garish mess, as boring as they are nonsensical. I've even seen this thing show up on top ten of 2012 lists! What the fuck are critics smoking? I feel like I'm losing my fucking mind over here!

4. American Dad! (Fox)

Direction of shift: Neutral/apathetic to highly positive

2012 is the year that I finally came around on Seth MacFarlane. Granted, part of that is due to liking Ted and an even bigger part to finally reaching a boiling point with all the dullard comedy hipsters who treat him as their religion's Satan and just wanting to disagree with them on anything purely out of principle, but the biggest part was getting into American Dad!.

I had written the show off after watching the so-so pilot back in 2005, but this year I finally checked out some more recent episodes and discovered that it's become a terrific comedy, with Steve Smith and Roger the Alien in particular being two of the greatest sitcom characters right now. Watching six seasons on Netflix this year was a tremendous treat that nourished my comedy appetite for months. It's certainly a more accomplished, creative, and enjoyable show about a government agent than Archer, even if Archer's lower budget and American Dad! being produced by their personal boogeyman means that comedy snobs will never admit it. I look forward to it with enthusiasm every week.

3. Homeland (Showtime)

Direction of shift: Extremely strongly positive to positive with qualifications

I wrote about this pretty recently, but Homeland has been... troubled this season. Not bad, mind you, as it continues to entertain, but it's pretty much shed all the subtlety, patience, and nuance that distinguished it last year, morphing from something that at its pinnacle approached being the war on terror's answer to what The Wire was to the war on drugs into 24 minus the real-time gimmick. It was art. Now it's pulp. And I can enjoy pulp! (Ask me my thoughts on John Carter sometime.) But I can't help but feel it's a betrayal.

2. Boss (Starz)

Direction of shift: Strongly positive to pretty darn negative

My glowing, positively effusive review of the pilot episode of Boss is very high up on the list of TV criticism I've written that I now cringe the most while rereading (see also the fact that I ever pretended Up All Night had potential). And it's not that the show even changed that much in 2012 – it continued to be theatrical, deeply, deeply cynical, and Kelsey Grammer continued to bring immense fire to the titular mayor of Chicago – but, at a certain point, Boss season 2 became damaging to my soul.

It wasn't even the fact that, in terms of a sense of humor, the show made grimfests like The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones and Homeland look like Friends, or the fact that the bad guys always won, as it was the fact that every single main character seemed to regard every other main character with pure, unbridled hatred – as nothing more than objects to be betrayed at exactly the right moment – and every main character save Sanaa Lathan's Mona Fredricks seemed to have nothing but pure evil in their hearts. It was the most joyless season of television I've ever seen. I came to hate watching it (not to be confused with hate-watching, which can be tremendous fun). I greeted Boss's cancellation with immense relief.

1. Bob's Burgers (Fox)

Direction of shift: Moderately negative to very, very strongly positive

You know that hypothetical list I just mentioned of TV criticism I've done that I now cringe to look at? Well, at the very top of that list would be my dismissal of Bob's Burgers from January 2011. I come before you today, metaphorical hat in hand, to offer a mea culpa for anything and everything bad I ever said about Bob's Burgers. I could not have been more wrong. Bob's Burgers is tremendous, tremendous fun, and between "Burgerboss," "Bob Day Afternoon," "Moody Foodie," "Bad Tina," "Full Bars," "The Deepening," and "Tina-Rannosaurus Wrecks," it's responsible for almost every one of my favorite non-Community half hours of comedy to air on television this year. I'll stop here because I'd like to do a full-length essay on it at some point, but Bob's Burgers is one of the best shows on TV. I love, love, love it.

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