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.

9. Girls (HBO)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 7

I dutifully trudged through the first season of HBO's Girls, taking it on good faith that surely all the critics praising it and Lena Dunham to high heaven and beyond weren't full of shit, right? I mean, my eyes and ears were telling me that Girls was a minimally involving, largely unfunny sitdramedy with a bunch of dull, unrelatable characters stumbling through a sleepy non-story, not a hint of wit or insightfulness to a minute of it. But I soldiered on into season 2 nonetheless, hoping to be proven wrong. And then when they introduced Hannah's never-before-mentioned OCD out of fucking nowhere and suddenly refocused the whole "story" around it – and that shit was still more interesting than the Marnie, Jessa or Shoshanna stories – it hit me clear as lightning: Nope. This show sucks. I dropped it like a bad habit and haven't looked back.

8. Smash (NBC)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 7-9 (best estimate, not sure)

People like to mock Glee, and don't get me wrong, I understand. I delight in joining in on occasion! But I can never truly put my heart into full-on hatred of that show, because all you have to do is take one look at NBC's immensely tone-deaf Broadway drama Smash and see how much worse a TV musical can get. There was just something rotten in this show right down in its DNA. The musical sequences felt lazy, the dialogue and staging awkward, its exposé of Broadway was thin and surface-level, the characters were almost all annoying (except perhaps Megan Hilty, who really made the most she could out of this turd taco). The way the producers actually seemed to believe that Anjelica Huston throwing drinks in people's faces had become Smash's beloved signature sickened me in a way I can't fully explain. Smash got canceled for shitty ratings, and it was well-earned.

7. Ironside (NBC)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 1

I don't really like case-of-the-week cop procedurals that much. (Pretentious TV blogger doesn't like case-of-the-week cop procedurals?!! I'll give you a minute to process the shock.) That said, I'll acknowledge their value as something to put on while cleaning or cooking or to stare at glassy-eyed during that fuzzy line between really late at night and really early in the morning. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't half-watched a few episodes of Law & Order: SVU in the 2-4 AM range this year, along with a Bones or Criminal Intent here and there. I don't salivate for them, but I acknowledge why they exist.

I say this to make it clear that I'm not busting Ironside's wheels balls because it's a case-of-the-week cop procedural. I'm doing it because it's an awful case-of-the-week cop procedural. The case (singular, because I only watched one episode) was so generic. The dialogue was such hacky cop banter. The "tragic" backstory of how Ironside wound up in his wheelchair was hilarious. This shit would have been laughed off the air twenty years ago, so no wonder it got laughed off the air after a few episodes this fall. The TV world will not weep for its absence.

6. The Americans (FX)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 13 (all)

If there's one big takeaway from 2013 for me, it's this: Fuck "quality television." Seriously, fuck it! Fuck its antiheroes. Fuck their double lives and the looming threat of discovery. Fuck the grim, despairing tone almost all "quality television" shares, fuck its glacial pacing and gray visual palate and near-identical tense family scenes and one person (usually a cop) who suspects the truth of our antihero protagonist's double life. Fuck it all. Fuck House of Cards, fuck Ray Donovan, and absolutely fuck The Americans and the voices trying to prop it up as the "great" TV show to take over the discourse in the wake of Breaking Bad and Mad Men.

I just don't understand – or maybe I understand but hate – why a new TV show in 2013 has to be this unrelentingly bleak and dire and joyless and punishing to be anointed with the "quality television" label. The Americans is just so dry and slow and dead. It's no fun at all, ever. It's just such an unhappy TV watching experience. It makes me feel like dogshit. It makes The Wire, one of the most serious-minded and academic shows in TV history, look like a fun, pulpy adventure series bursting with humorous situations and colorful characters. Breaking Bad? Shit, The Americans makes Breaking Bad look like a four-quadrant summer blockbuster.

But make no mistake: After thirteen hours of lurching dead-eyed and passionless at a snail's pace through every beat that a "quality" cable drama is supposed to hit (and not just hitting those beats but hitting them over and over and over again – if I never see another scene with Philip Jennings running his fake romance ploy on goddamned Martha it will be too soon) the critics decided that this dull, repetitive, generic, generic show was the new TV masterpiece to beat. Can't wait to see next year's crop of antiheroes and double lives and tense family scenes. Please note my sarcasm and excuse my monstrous unhinged-jaw yawn.

5. Lucky 7 (ABC)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 1

Absolutely no program to debut on TV in 2013 trumps Lucky 7 in "Who did the network executives think this appealed to? How did they think this was a sustainable week-to-week TV show that could run for years?" The story of some average joes working at a gas station who win the lottery and split the winnings, this show just seeped incompetence from every pore. The characters were so, so uninteresting. There wasn't a single subplot in the pilot that didn't come out of the "Generic TV Writing for Hacks" handbook. The tone was flat and devoid of personality or feeling or warmth or humor. The ratings were rock-bottom and this waste was jettisoned from ABC's schedule with such speed and ferocity I half-suspect ABC would have strapped the unaired episodes to a rocket and launched them into the sun if they could.

(All that said, I do give the show credit for sneaking a handjob scene onto primetime network television. Though the other forty-plus minutes of the pilot were godawful, for those thirty seconds or so I thought the show was actually pretty interesting only for how it taunted the FCC. Which is why I have it at #5 instead of #3.)

4. The Secret Life of the American Teenager (ABC Family)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 2

7th Heaven creator Brenda Hampton's preachy, vaguely religious teen soap The Secret Life of the American Teenager is first and foremost probably the most unsettling TV show I've ever seen. It just made me uneasy to watch in a way American Horror Story and The Walking Dead can only dream of. It was the glassy-eyed, vacant performances from the actors, like they were poorly-coached aliens wearing human faces. The stilted dialogue that felt crafted by unfeeling robots. The virtually unmoving camera that imbued everything with a chilling stillness. The huge stretches that played out with no music and minimal background noise, making the show feel empty as death. The endless, endless repetition of "sex" like some kind of mantra. Secret Life just felt weird and otherworldly and inhuman. Its disquieting rhythms scratch at the edges of my brain.

It's not like the sheer oddness is the only problem with the show – stepping back and simply viewing it as a teen soap it makes Gossip Girl and 90210 look like Freaks and Geeks and Friday Night Lights . The teen pregnancy-centric storytelling is insanely awful and always was from the pilot straight through to this year's clip show (!!) series finale. But it's the surreal pod person acting and creepily dead film grammar that I'll think back on when I recall this show in years to come.

3. Dads (Fox)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 2

Way, way, way too many words were spilled on these internets about how offensive Dads was back when they made Brenda Song wear an Asian schoolgirl outfit (because most TV critics just copy what other TV critics are writing about). What only a few of these samey essays mentioned is how fucking deathly dull and unfunny and lifeless this canned laughter shitcom is. It's dreadful. Just pure hackwork that makes Chuck Lorre's shows look brilliant in comparison. I'm mixed on Seth MacFarlane – I love American Dad, thought Ted was ok, and can mostly live without Family Guy and The Cleveland Show – but even Family Guy at its absolute nadir is bursting with life and energy and creativity compared to whatever the fuck is happening on Dads. I can't possibly imagine MacFarlane looks at this show and is in any way proud of what he's accomplished.

2. Do No Harm (NBC)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 1

You probably never watched Do No Harm, because it premiered this spring to what I understand were at the time the lowest series premiere ratings for a show on the big four networks ever. Like, literally ever. In television history. And as much as I'd love to pull an L.A. Complex and tell the 99.996% of people missing the lowest-rated show ever that they're actually missing a pretty good show, in this case, no, the ratings pretty well matched the quality. The Jekyll and Hyde story of a surgeon who is good by day then turns evil at the exact same time each night, the show nearly matches Lucky 7 in "Why did they think anyone would want to watch this?" factor, but with even worse acting. It's more energetic than probably any other show above it on this list, but unfortunately I also found it truly, massively, unbelievably fucking stupid. Not in a fun way. In a way that made the pilot – the only episode I could stomach – a really difficult and uncomfortable experience to get through 42 minutes of. There's a strong possibility it's the worst new network TV show since Hank.

1. Low Winter Sun (AMC)
# of 2013 episodes watched: 1

You know everything I just said about The Americans? Take all that and multiply it by a hundred and you get Low Winter Sun. Hey, cable television? Take your bleak and nihilistic double-life-leading antihero dramas and shove them up your fucking ass. I don't want 'em on my TV anymore. Any TV producer out there currently working on creating a new bleak and nihilistic double-life-leading antihero drama? YOU. ARE. A. FUCKING. HACK. Quit your job yesterday.


  1. Making an anti hero is hard. Batman is cool because he still has humanity and virtues and their is something worth fighting for. Superman (the animated version) works because even though he's a nice guy, he does feel anger rage and guilt, not to mention doubt uncertainty, impulsiveness and even jealousy at times. He just works a lot harder to control it. Having a fundementally nice guy can work

    1. I have nothing against an antihero as a general principle - Olivia Pope in Scandal does some truly bad things and is definitely not a conventional hero, and I really like that show. Tyrion and Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones - great characters in a great show who do plenty of bad things. Will Graham in Hannibal and maybe even Oliver Queen in Arrow also fit the antihero label and I love those shows. (And, as you mentioned, Batman.)

      But those shows all mix up their tones and pacing and storytelling. It's that cable TV mix of antihero + secret double life + grim tone + slow pace that I just can't take anymore. It makes me feel like scratching my eyeballs out.

  2. OK. I just feel that in recent years people slam regular heroes and assume that for a hero to be interesting they must be really damaged or have flaws. Luke Skywalker was a fundementally nice guy. HE had flaws but it didn't keep him from being a truly good person. Superman worked because he has issues, but is still a good person. In the animated series he let his distaste of batman (part of it was that batman was fucking lois, part of it was superman just did not approve of his style) cloud his judgment. The end result? He almost dies. Or in Legacy. Kara is badly injured and when the doctor refuses to treat her out of fear Superman lashes out and basically threatens to kill him. It's a loss of control and he regrets it, but it was still pretty damn terrifying. In that case, Superman was able to resonate with me. He felt human. He felt fallible. He made mistakes, he lost his temper, he acted like a human.

    I'm not dissing the anti hero. But anti heroes have to be kind of likable. In God of War 1 Kratos was an anti hero because he genuinely regretted his crimes, genuinely wanted to set things right and was still less of a monster than ares. In the 2nd and most of the third game, he's an asshole. He wants revenge for a punishment he wholly deserved.

    Jaime has humanity (he killed the king in order to save the city, he cares for Brienne and genuinely loves his brother).

    I'm annoyed by the idea that a good hero must be a douchebag.

  3. and by having flaws i mean "have flaws that overshadow all else." Tony stark was only likable for me in the first iron man and the later part of the third. In his other appearances he was a complete douchebag who is rude and insensitive to everyone he allegedly cares for. As lame as Killian's motivations were (Tony was mean at a party) it at least forced tony to admit that even his smaller actions could have consequences).

  4. I don't have anything against a wannabe as a general guideline - Olivia Pope in Embarrassment does some genuinely terrible things and is certainly not an ordinary legend, and I truly like that show. Tyrion and Jaime Lannister in Round of Positions of royalty - awesome characters in an incredible show who do a lot of terrible things. Will Graham in Hannibal and perhaps Oliver Ruler in Bolt additionally fit the screw-up mark and I adore those shows. (Also, as you specified, Batman.Yet, those demonstrates all misunderstanding their tones and pacing and narrating. It's that satellite television blend of screw-up + mystery twofold life + dismal tone + moderate pace that I can't take any longer. It influences me to have a craving for scratching my eyeballs out.
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