Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My 20 Favorite Television Shows of 2013

Are you sick of hearing about whether or not we're in the golden age of television?  There has been alot of hand-wringing about that lately, spurred on by the fact that 2013 was an unequivocally great year for TV, the best that I've seen since I started following the medium closely.  Not only was the year remarkable for its depth of quality, but also for its breadth.  Good television has been popping up from every corner, with networks like Sundance making their debut in original programming and online sources like Hulu and Netflix expanding their market.  One of the shows in end of the year discussion, Borgen, released episodes on LinkTV -- whatever that is!  It's interesting to think that a little over a decade ago, most of the talked about TV shows came from the big four networks (CBS, Fox, NBC, and ABC) and HBO.  Now I literally get anxiety thinking about all of the great television coming from so many different places that I'll never get around to watching.  (For how much TV I already watch, see the full list linked to at the bottom of this post.)

Television lists are harder than music and film lists to do, because the main television season is spread out over two calendar years, with many shows starting their seasons in September and not ending until April or May.  This is becoming less of an issue, as summer is seen as a television ghetto less and less every year, and cable shows tend to air their entire seasons in a single calendar year.  Nevertheless, for each television show, the only episodes eligible for ranking purposes are the ones that aired in 2013.  That seems like an obvious thing, but it always throws some people.  This can sometimes work to a show's advantage.  For example, Parenthood was very high on my list last year because it aired all of its best material (the end of season 3 at the beginning of year, the beginning of season 4 in the fall) in 2012.  On the other hand, New Girl was never going to land in my top 20 this year, but it ended up being way further down on my full list because its third season has been so terrible, it's tarnished the quality of the back half of season 2 that aired at the beginning of the year.  Is all of that clear?  Okay, good.

For all of my talk about the breadth of the television landscape, my top 20 consists of a small cluster of networks, but there are still some unexpected ones.  The list heavily favors cable to network, with 16 belonging to the former and 2 belonging to the latter (and 2 coming from internet-only sources).  My top 20 is also low on straight comedies, consisting of mostly dramas and shows that are listed as "comedy" but are mostly dramatic.  This is mainly because of how good this year was for drama, but it also was a very weak year for comedy, particular network comedies.  So enough analysis of the list, let's move on to the actual thing...

Monday, December 30, 2013

My 20 Favorite Films of 2013

This year, I got a car, so I was able to see more movies in 2013 than I did in any other year.  I won't try to come up with some unifying theme for the year in film, other than "umm...there were some good movies, huh"?  Many films this year were tales of survival under brutal circumstances (Captain Phillips, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave, All is Lost), while others were concentrated character studies that watched their protagonists sink or swim (Blue Jasmine, Frances Ha, The Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis).  Usually we think of summer popcorn films as the low point of the year in cinema and arthouse films as the beacon of quality, but this year there were some great blockbusters (Fast & Furious 6, Pacific Rim) and some pretty awful indie movies (Upstream Color, Only God Forgives).  2013 saw new films from beloved directors like Alfonso Cuaron and Terrence Malick, and allowed newer directors like J.C. Chandor to make more of a mark in the film world.

As always, many of the year's most acclaimed films get released for a week in New York and Los Angeles, to meet eligibility for the Oscars, while the rest of the country has to wait until January of the next year to see them.  So I like to think of my film list at the end of the year as an unofficial version.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to see some films that I was really looking forward to -- Her, Nebraska, The Past -- because they haven't come out in theaters near me yet.  On the other hand, the fact that you won't see Enough Said on this list is all my fault, because I didn't see it when it was in theaters, but I'm sure I would've loved it.  Finally, I had the opportunity to watch Prisoners and Blue is the Warmest Color in my usual end of the year crunch, but I just got too exhausted.  Even still, I'm satisfied with my list, which features a great balance of big and small films.

One last thing to note is that eligibility for this list is based on when the film came out in theaters in America.  Some of the smaller and foreign films tend to premiere at festivals in the year before, but if it didn't get a theatrical release until 2013 then it's allowed to be counted.  So without further ado, the list...

Sunday, December 29, 2013

My 20 Favorite Albums of 2013

Earlier this year, I wrote about how 2013 was the year of the event album, in that we saw the return of many artists who had been inactive for a long time (My Bloody Valentine, Mazzy Star, Justin Timberlake, Boards of Canada, Daft Punk) and new releases from blockbuster artists (Kanye West, Vampire Weekend).  Elsewhere, music critics wondered whether we were seeing the end of guitar rock in an increasingly synth-based world.  Additionally, I saw many thinkpieces this year about the "Emo Revival," a resurgence of bands making quality emo music (I'll just have to take their word for it).  2013 wasn't a year where you could pin down one overarching narrative; instead, there were many narratives happening at once.  It was the year that indie went pop (Haim, Chvrches), pop went indie (Sky Ferreira, Charli XCX), rap continued to make its steps into a new golden age, etc.

I've often said that I don't consider any year to be a "bad" year for music, but 2013 seemed to be a particularly good one.  Expand my list to a top 30 instead of 20 and every album would still be something I consider great.  I don't know whether it's about a true uptick in quality or an expansion of my tastes, but this was the year where it finally felt like there was too music.  Almost every week had a release I wanted to listen to, and there were some albums that could've been top 20 contenders (Janelle Monae, Blood Orange, Sky Ferreira, Beyonce) but I didn't have the time to give them more than a few listens.

Overall, I'm pretty happy with my list.  I had a tough time figuring out the order -- my #1 and 2 were pretty locked in for most of the year, but after that it's much more of a grab bag -- and these last few weeks have been time for me to relisten to albums and manically switch placements around.  One thing I would've liked is for a little more diversity.  There are more pop and rap releases than there were in previous years (perhaps indie rock IS dying!!!), but these are all albums that you'll see on basically any other Best of the Year list.  Looking for an interesting list?  Well look elsewhere, because this isn't it!  Okay, now on to the actual list (with links included for the highlight songs if there's a Youtube video for it)...

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

We need to talk about that amazing season finale of Awkward

Though they may seem quite different when you first think about them, I often group Awkward and Suburgatory together in my head.  Neither are shows that have ever made it anywhere close to my top 20 list at the end of the year, even though I would recommend them to people.  They both may be listed as comedies, but I often find their comedy too broad and vastly prefer the dramatic/emotional beats they hit.  Both have a number of characters I'd completely cut out of the show, starting with Noah on Suburgatory and Valerie on Awkward.  At the end of the day, they're pleasant watches -- if they weren't, I'd stop tuning in -- but they both are mostly just content with being "pleasant" and nothing more.  Basically, they each do alot of things -- and I mean alot -- that I don't enjoy, but when they decide to take things up a notch (think "The Wishbone" for Suburgatory and the final scene in "Pick Me, Choose Me, Love Me" for Awkward), it makes for some truly transcendent television.

After two 12-episode seasons, MTV decided to up the episode order for season 3, thus making it 20 episodes and split into two halves over the year.  I was a little skeptical at first.  While I often like the way that longer seasons (especially for high school shows) allow for "filler" episodes that give us a better feel for the characters, I generally find the 10-13 episode format better suited for dramatic arcs.  But you couldn't really tell much of a difference once the season started -- Awkward was just the same old Awkward.  Except in a small but crucial way, it wasn't and hadn't been for a long time.  One of the things that initially hooked me into the show in season one was that it was Jenna's journey of recovery from an incident that left her a social outcast.  Over the course of its 12 episodes, Jenna's path intersected with the various corners that existed in her school as she navigated through this difficult time.  What was initially just another feature of the show in season 1 -- the love triangle between her, Matty, and Jake -- became the dominating force in season 2.

By the time season 3 rolled around, the show had moved past the "Will Jenna end up with Matty or Jake?" question, but straight into another romantic entanglement, as Jenna developed feelings for the underwritten, poorly acted Collin.  It makes sense that a teenage girl would be fickle when it comes to boys, and the first half of season 3 was still filled with some delightful moments, but there were times where I wondered whether the obsession with Jenna's tumultuous love life would topple the show.  It wasn't until it returned from its midseason break in October that I realized what Lauren Iungerich and the rest of the writers were trying to do.  All of the foolish decisions Jenna was making were more than deliberate; the show was attempting to turn Jenna into the villain of her own show, and were doing a brilliant job of it.  Her eventual realization that she's hit rock bottom might have felt a little forced, but it brought about a refreshing return to the regular rhythms of the show, following Jenna on her road to redemption.

So after making up with her parents in "The Campaign Fail," her friends in "Old Jenna," and Valerie in "Karmic Relief;" "Who I Want to Be" felt like it was going to be a quiet hour, where things were finally back to normal.  After largely being adrift for most of the season, Sadie was still kind of isolated from the core of the story, but she at least had some funny scenes with her mother.  One of my favorite things about these last few episodes was the introduction of Bailey, because it's rare that a show just introduces a new friend for the protagonist to have outside of their main group of friends.  And even though I feared that the writers might be using her as the thing that tragically ruins the chances of Matty and Jenna reconciling, I found her to be a warm and pleasant person on a show where the characters often don't feel grounded.  Plus, my fears were assuaged in the finale, when it zigged instead of zagging, with Jenna helping Matty and Bailey get together instead of deciding that their coupling was a friendship-ruiner for her and Bailey.  The first three-fourths of the finale were filled with solid moments like these.

But in the last 15 minutes, the episode transformed from a fun farewell to an eventful season to pure, unfiltered amazingness.  It started with that scene between Jenna and her mom, where Jenna is trying to write her "Who I Want to Be" paper and looking at the infamous letter that caused a rift between the two of them back in the show's early days.  Jenna's relationship with her mom has been one of the best things about Awkward for a long time, and it might be the most exciting and nuanced mother-daughter relationship currently on television.  Their scenes together are usually the highlight of any episode, so this scene in the finale brought their entire relationship full circle, and the show finally reached the seemingly impossible heights that it did in that scene between the two of them way back in season 2's "Pick Me, Choose Me, Love Me."  If that was the only excellent scene, it'd be enough, but then there was the moment where Matty and Jenna share a dance while a Jessie Ware song is playing in the background.  It was wonderful and reflective, but most of all, it was content with having these characters exist in the moment, not concerned with aggressively pushing the intense relationship drama that the show had been mired in for the past two seasons.

Yet still, that's not even the end of the glorious joys that "Who I Want to Be" had to offer.  It closes on Mr. Hart reading Jenna's paper, where she sums up three seasons of self-actualization in a few beautiful sentences.  Maybe I'm just a sucker for the "wrapping things up with a letter" technique (my favorite book, Looking For Alaska, does this in devastating fashion), but it felt so cathartic.  For months, Lauren Iungerich had been asking us to be patient, because she was building to something with Jenna's arc this season, and I dismissively thought "Oh, I'm sure the finale will be good, but will it really all be worth it"?  It was totally worth it.  Jenna's realization that she doesn't need a boy to define her life and determine her happiness was something I'd been we'd all been waiting for her to have for ages.  It's up there with Breaking Bad's "I did it for me" moment in terms of pure satisfaction.  The image that the finale leaves us with, of Jenna dancing contentedly by herself, is the one of the most joyous moments of television I've seen since the iconic Girls scene where Hannah and Marnie dance to a Robyn song at the end of a hard day.

"Who I Want to Be" is even more satisfying given how up in the air the show's future is.  It's getting a fourth season, but one without Lauren Iungerich and most of the creative staff.  And despite the fact that I liked her and looked forward to where the show would take her character, Bailey won't be returning in season 4.  So if this finale was Iungerich's championship game, she left everything on the field, because you couldn't have asked for a better episode.  Her reign told a complete 3-season story, and even though I will most likely tune into the next season out of curiosity, it's hard to imagine the new staff ever living up to this send-off.

Sometimes a finale is so good that it makes you want to reassess everything before it.  I found this most recent season of Boardwalk Empire to be frustrating in its lack of direction, but it ended with a finale that was so spectacular that the whole season rose several orders of magnitude in my estimation.  Earlier this year, I also wrote about Mad Men's 6th season, which I found to be good but formless for most of its run, only to have things snap together in the season finale.  Awkward's just another example of this.  My top 20 shows of the year list has no room for anything as frustrating as this third season often was, but "Who I Want to Be" is, without a doubt, one of my favorite episodes of 2013.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Midseason Report: The Walking Dead's promising start to season 4 takes a frustrating, baffling turn

"See, I would've been a better Katniss than Jennifer Lawrence!"

Various stages of The Walking Dead's life as a show can be defined by its ever-changing showrunner position.  In the beginning, it was under the helm of Frank Darabont, and when it comes to adapting a beloved comic book series, you couldn't have asked for a better pedigree than a three-time Academy Award nominee.  Unfortunately, his gifts didn't seem particularly suited for television, because his reign was riddled with problems.  I've been a long-time Walking Dead skeptic, and part of it is because of the foundation Darabont laid -- a show where uninteresting characters made poor decisions while spouting leaden dialogue.  I wasn't that wowed by Glen Mazzara's stint as showrunner either, despite his also considerable resume (training under the likes of television greats like Shawn Ryan).  Perhaps he was given a raw deal by having to clean up Darabont's mess, but even though the work that was unarguably his in season 3 was better, it was still messy and frustrating.  So, because AMC didn't respond to my letters requesting that they hire Amy Sherman-Palladino to run the show (where, of course, the zombies would now spout pop culture references and do ballet), we've got Scott Gimple.  You may know him as the guy who wrote "18 Miles Out" and "Clear" -- two of the show's best episodes -- but more importantly, he created Fillmore!, the greatest cartoon about a black safety patrol ever.

Right from the start, you could notice the difference in the show, now that it was being led by Gimple.  One of the reasons why those two episodes mentioned above are such standouts is because they have a different tone from the rest of the show, one that's somber and thoughtful in ways that The Walking Dead often wasn't under the reigns of Darabont and Mazzara.  In the first 5 episodes, Gimple managed to nail that tone consistently and the result was a surprisingly gripping start to season 4.  After being unable to come up with a truly compelling human threat, this season smartly chose to have a plague that's spreading through the prison be the major source of tension.  Finally, instead of characters openly monologuing about how grim and hopeless the world is, we get to actually see and feel these people's frayed nerves.  Showing instead of telling is basically Screenwriting 101, and it's kind of insane that the writers only just learned the concept after 3 seasons, but now that it was here it was a welcome change that made all the difference.

As I mentioned above, another frustration I had with the show in the early going was that I didn't care about any of the characters, and found a handful of them to be downright terribly written.  I grew mildly fond of the usual people that everyone has grown to like -- Daryl, Glenn, Maggie -- but during the prison plague, I actually cared about the fates of the characters (even if it did seem like a device to lower the budget on recurring cast members).  Some of this came from little changes -- Michonne actually smiled a few times! -- but much of the improvement came from putting the characters in tough situations and having them deal with it in interesting ways.  The biggest example of this came in "Indifference," with the reveal that Carol burnt those two unimportant characters whose names I'm too lazy to look up (listen, the character work still isn't perfect).  It's a conflict with two perspectives that are well-mapped out, with Carol doing what she felt was right for the good of the prison, Rick feeling like he can't let her return to the prison for fear of what would happen next, and both realizing that there's no way to mitigate this divide.  Their separation is one built around two people who've been in many terrifying, life-threatening situations together but have reached a point where their worldviews have diverged, and it's one of the best things the show has ever done.  You wouldn't see something like this under any of the other showrunners' watch.

In a way though, The Walking Dead has always stealthily been about course correction, particularly through killing off characters.  Dale is doing too much speechifying and making maddening, idiotic decisions?  Just kill him!  Shane serves no purpose other than to be an uninteresting obstacle?  Kill him!  The whole "search for Sophia" storyline is repetitive and aimless?  She was dead the whole time!  Lori is the stock "wife who is a drag" character type?  Kill her mid-birth!  T-Dog mostly only says "AW HELL NAW!"?  Okay, kill him!  Andrea is the indisputably the worst?  Kill her after she does what she did best -- refusing to make the most logical decision!  So a part of me feels like the writers have always been broadly aware of their problems, but the first 5 episodes of this season felt like the show was truly leaving all of its troubles behind.

Then The Governor came back.  I was not a huge fan of The Governor's arc back in season 3 -- the extended looks into life at Woodbury made the season feel oddly misshapen, his motivations were flat at best, and I've generally never been a fan of the "pure embodiment of evil" type of character.  Even though I knew he was eventually going to come back, the wishful, optimistic side of me hoped that we would never see or hear from him again.  Surprisingly, though, I was quite a big fan of "Live Bait," the episode that focused solely on what The Governor had been doing since his showdown with Rick and the prison gang at the end of season 3.  I've seen complaints of it being boring and slow and desultory, but I thought it was a genuinely compelling hour of television.  Sure, it seemed like they were trying to retcon the character, turning him into a mournful, broken man, but I was willing to roll with it because it was far more interesting than the soulless tyrant we saw in season 3.

"Live Bait" worked as a nice little short story that could be lifted out of the overall arc of season 4, but the problem is that they followed it up with another episode completely devoted to The Governor.  And this one was...not so good.  Remember all of that "changed man" stuff that just happened one episode ago?  Well, all of that was reversed!  Now, you could be thinking, "Stop being silly.  Of course The Governor was going to turn evil once more.  He has to take on Rick again.  That's how stories work!"  That's true, but the writers could have done it in a more elegant way.  Instead, they just kind of punted the whole thing.  It all felt like something that would've sat comfortably in the middle of the previous seasons, filled with the kind of dumb plotting that it seemed like the show had gotten away from (Where was everybody when The Governor killed members of their densely packed camp?  Why wasn't anybody the least bit skeptical of the fact that people were dying as soon as this mysterious new guy joined the group?).  The herky-jerk arc of The Governor's actions would've been tolerable if there was some actual ambiguity to him, but it's almost as if the writers themselves didn't really know what drives him.

And so the midseason finale, as "exciting" as it was on a surface level, could never really be satisfying when it was standing on top of such a weak foundation.  I'm okay with the somber, simmering beginning and the action-packed ending of this half of season 4, but the bridge between the two was so broken that the connection ultimately doesn't work.  And really, how much can we praise this ending for being action-packed when it was pretty stupid?  Listen, I get it.  The Governor is a monster whose rage blinds him.  But I would hope that he'd have a plan that was better than basically destroying the very same place he wanted to have.  It's a nice development to have our protagonists be uprooted from the prison, but it's diminished by the fact that it's all for the sake of concluding The Governor's erratic, confusing arc.  It may sound like I'm overly disappointed, but I'm only bummed because the show was hinting at becoming high drama for a while, before reverting back to the empty schlock it had been peddling for the better part of three seasons.  For the biggest offender, look no further than its choice to kill two (TWO!) kids in one episode.  At least the zombie rising up out of the red clay to bite Meghan was a striking visual, but the perceived death of baby Judith was grossly manipulative ("but she dies in the comics!" --says the annoying person who always says something like this.  Yeah, I read them too).

Who knows, maybe Scott Gimple hated The Governor as much as I did and he just wanted to wash his hands of him in the most messy, scorched-earth way possible.  Perhaps now that the prison gang has been scattered to the winds and forced to find a new place to stay, the show can return to the grim grittiness that it was for the first 6 episodes of this season.  Anything will be better than what we got these last two weeks.