This. Is. It.
Our favourite (and least favourite) television shows of the year are just after the break. You’ve followed along all week and now it’s time for the big reveal, so go ahead and jump in with the last of our end of year coverage!
#1: Torchwood: Miracle Day
There’s a trend to many of my ‘Worst Of’ picks: they are all disappointments.
Oh sure, there are bad shows. Shows that are so inept, so poorly acted, so horribly constructed, that I can’t even be bothered to check them out. And then there are the shows I’ve spent the last five days exploring in detail: shows with potential, with good actors, with strong writers and directors, and despite all these qualities that should make them a success, there’s something off. The storylines are flat, the acting poor, the writing is offensive, silly or – worst of all – dull and forgettable. These shows make the cardinal sin of not simply being bad, but having the possibility of being good and then wasting it. And that’s aggravating.
No show this year aggravated me more than Torchwood: Miracle Day.
Torchwood began as a BBC spin-off of the massively successful Doctor Who. One of the Doctor’s sidekicks, an immortal man named Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), was spun-off with his own task-force dedicated to protecting the world from alien invaders. This group was called Torchwood, and for two series (British seasons) this group faced a series of cases and challenges. The show was good, but it was never more than solid. And then something happened: Torchwood returned two years ago as a five episode miniseries called Children of Earth, concerning an alien invader that requests 10% of the world’s children or else the world will be destroyed. It was complicated, adult, and exciting – on both a worldwide and a personal scale. It was, in many people’s opinions, the best science fiction on television that year.
Expectations were understandably high when American cable channel Starz announced a joint venture with the BBC to bring the Torchwood team to America for a ten-episode miniseries this past summer. Their foe is the greatest threat the team has ever faced: humans itself. After the titular miracle day, they can no longer die. And so a fantastic (if not entirely original) science fiction conceit is created. How will a world without death survive and what (or who) is behind the miracle?
It all sounds intriguing, and going into the miniseries, it seemed like a rich concept that would provide a ridiculous amount of fodder for juicy stories. Show creator Russell T. Davies promised to explore health care, politics, religious fascism and more.
So what did we get? For the most part we got a group of five (and later four) characters breaking into buildings, hacking into computers or hanging out in medical tents and houses. We spend a significant amount of time with a convicted child molester/killer named Oswald Davis who we are led to believe is involved with the miracle, but ultimately that amounts to nothing.
Any time we focus on our two original Torchwood characters, Captain Jack and his female sidekick, Gwen (Eve Myles), the show had renewed energy. They get all the funny lines, the fish out of water couple forced to work with stupid Americans, and even when they are saddled with lame storylines (such as rescuing Gwen’s living dead father from about five different medical/military death camps), they still give it their all.
The same, unfortunately, cannot be said for the new American characters. Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) starts off okay as the character to whom new viewers are aligned. She asks all the expository questions, has to constantly be kept up to speed, and is generally interesting. But then she reports her sister to the authorities for being abusive to her nieces and quickly becomes sad, boring and a big drag (Sample dialogue: ‘I can’t do this. I’m not a field agent!’). The female doctor is better, though she gets sacrificed to the narrative gods to demonstrate how terrible the new medical system is. Instead of tying her death into the story, it is a murder committed by a character whose sole purpose is to kill her and is never addressed again. This kind of non-continuity pervades throughout the ten episodes.
Esther and the doctor are poorly developed, frequently shrill or stupid, but they alone do not make this the worst show of the year. No, that honour goes to actor Mekhi Phifer, who is meant to assume the role of generic American hero. I freely admit that I have never been a fan of Phifer, who seems to have two acting ranges: angry black man and angrier black man. Beyond ‘angry,’ he has no range, no believability, and no character. The show does him no help by impaling him with a pipe in the first episode, leaving him to complain about the pain and pop Advil throughout the rest of the series. Of course the injury that he whines about doesn’t prevent him from running up stairs, beating up bad guys and “saving the day” (often by yelling, then shooting, then yelling some more).
These generic action guy tropes might have been defensible if the show was more interesting, but problematically there’s nothing else going on to distract from how terrible Phifer is. All the topics that Davies and his writers (including the amazing Jane Espenson) promised the series would examine are passed over and addressed superficially. We get moralizing condemnation about the state of the military in the US. We get brief examinations of how the medical community would handle new categorizations of illness. We get a cursory examinations of the rise of a new religion built around the new world order. All of this is given short shrift in favour of a convoluted mythology centering on a shadowy crime syndicate that has always existed and is responsible for all sorts of things. It’s vague, poorly explained and totally boring – which is rather surprising considering that the touched on ideas could easily fill an entire series, never mind a limited ten episode run.
As with most of the ‘worst’ shows, Miracle Day is a huge disappointment. In light of the quality of Children of Earth, it’s a poor follow-up. In light of the quality in front and behind the camera, it’s a weak effort. And in terms of entertainment value, it’s the worst show of the year. Avoid at all costs unless you have ten hours to waste.
#1: The X-Factor S1
This one wasn’t hard for me at all. Worst show of the year? The X-Factor, hands down. Now before I get pounced on, I will say that I do have a soft spot for these “finding America’s next great singer amongst the regular folk” reality shows. Erm, sorry – The X-Factor is concerned with finding America’s next superstar. Hmm…so what exactly is the difference between this show and American Idol? Answer: Lots of extreme close-ups and significantly higher production values. The prize for the winner is $5 million and a recording contract(s). Yes, the X-Factor is like American Idol on steroids.
I watched almost every episode, many times asking myself “Why are you doing this to yourself? Why?” Honestly, I like to hear good singing I guess. In fact, during the audition portion of the show, I was able to forgive the cheesy editing and emotionally manipulative back stories of the featured contestants, and really enjoyed seeing some great singing. Winner Melanie Amaro and runner-up Josh Krajcik were my favourites right from the beginning. So at the very least, we have some talent. So that’s the good. Onto the bad.
The core of why I hated this show is its blatant artificiality and constructedness. Everything is so over the top, from the horrendous host (Steve Jones who has put his foot in his mouth so many times I can’t even count) to the HUGE screens zooming in close-up on the contestants faces (most of the time holding back tears as Simon Cowell rips into them).
Cowell definitely earns his title as puppet master because that’s exactly what this show is about – morphing talented singers into overproduced pop stars by seducing them with promises of fame and fortune, thereby stripping away any ounce of authenticity they may have had. This show is exploitative and contemptible. Where is this coming from? Two words: Rachel Crowe. Rachel Crowe was the 13 year-old contestant who got booted from the competition right before the semi-finales. And her exit was so deplorable that it quickly skyrocketed The X-Factor right to the top of my worst list.
You see, on The X-Factor the two contestants with lowest votes face the judges, who vote again for who they want to keep for the next week. If the judges are DEADLOCKED (ridiculously overemphasized in the show) then the “power shifts ” away from the judges and back to the public. The contestant with the lowest number of votes is sent home. Not only is going down the row of judges painstakingly slow as they spew out how difficult the choice is (both female judges are almost always crying…which is another issue I’ll just let slide for now), but the number of disgustingly saccharine comments of “I love you, this isn’t the end, but the beginning for you!” comments is enough to make you nauseous.
The worst offender of this – Nicole Scherzinger, who really is just a pretty face. She decided to choose Rachel because she assumed that “America” would have voted for the other contestant, Marcus Canty and therefore, wouldn’t be responsible for sending him home. Of course, “America” did vote, and they voted to oust Rachel. This 13 year-old girl was left balling on the stage, screaming for her mommy when Jones coldly broke the news of her elimination. She clearly wasn’t prepared for this – further citing the reasons why children shouldn’t be in these kinds of competitions. And the camera didn’t cut away – it zoomed in. Her mic wasn’t cut either - as we saw this poor little girl collapse (literally) in grief. Later, Scherzinger acknowledged that her vote wasn’t authentic as explained above, so why couldn’t some one have warned her of this impending train wreck? Ratings my friends. Entertainment. The next day the internet was plastered with pictures of Rachel breaking down, and soon Scherzinger became the celebrity scapegoat of the week. Like rabid animals, we pounced on this. This whole production is merely a small example of the bigger problem of the cult of celebrity that The X-Factor openly perpetuates.
There are plenty of other examples that I could rag on- like when she was announced as the winner, Melanie Amaro was forced to sing right after the announcement and did so whilst an unending amount of tears - but we’d be here for hours.
What happens to these contestants for the sake of audience entertainment makes me sad for humanity. That we’ve come to this as entertainment. Sure, I can tell you all about what’s a better use of your television watching time, but the ratings don’t lie. Shows like this are always the leaders in their time slots. And yes, I acknowledge that by watching I’m part of the problem – but trust me when I say that I won’t be watching anymore. If you ever wondered how Britney Spears made it, or why the Kardashians are so popular, this show gives us a window into that. Under the guise of “discovering” these talents, they soon become vessels for our own desire to “make it big” and are exploited accordingly. Never has it been so clear to me of how many people are actually behind a solo “artist”. Let’s make it about what’s best for cultivating the singers’ talent and strip away some of this hyperbolic excess.
# of episodes watched (mostly on ffwd, to the performances only): 20
Returns: Likely fall 2012 on FOX
#1: Homeland S1
Homeland is not a show I should enjoy. I’m not an American. I’m not overly interested in the military or homeland security. I’m pretty much done with the idea of the “war on terror” and I haven’t supported any of the recent conflicts, for whichever purpose they began (9/11, freeing the peoples of Iraq, tracking Osama Bin Laden). The topic of the show held no interest for me. In fact I only gave it a chance based on the advanced reviews, which called it the best television show of the fall season.
And guess what? It is.
For some viewers the appeal of the show was the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-terrorist question (regarding Damian Lewis’ Nicholas Brody). As I stated numerous times in my recaps of the show, Homeland is all about its central performances. Lewis is consistently great, as are the supporting turns by Morena Baccarin as his disaffected wife and Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s apprehensively supportive boss. In my opinion, however, Danes is the true revelation: she’s intense, on-edge, shrill, bossy, and unlikeable. She’s also impossible to take your eyes off of.
The series, created by the veterans who worked on 24, draws on familiar genre conventions: interrogations, surveillance, explosives, etc. And yet the restraint that the show demonstrates in even the most heightened situations ensures that it never falls into parody. Even as the show makes its way into the final stretch, when the opportunity to go overboard (exploitative territory would have been easy) the show resists. Instead it aces the finale: leaving viewers satisfied while still managing to set up a few teasing threads for the second season.
There were several memorable episodes of television this year, but as we prepare for 2012, one in particular sticks out in my mind. As TVangie mentioned yesterday, in episode 7 entitled, ‘The Weekend,’ everything that we as viewers have been wanting to ask (or have been asking in our minds) is addressed. It’s a brilliantly acted episode and the narrative gutso it takes to advance the narrative so early in the season is beyond anything a more traditional series would offer.
You’ve likely seen Homeland on several other ‘Best of’ lists for the year. Maybe you’ve wondered what the fuss is all about. Maybe you’ve been planning to check it out and haven’t. All I can do is encourage you to seek it out when you can and let yourself be engrossed in it. And then, come awards season, be ready for to hear a few names associated with it called to the podium. Homeland isn’t just the best freshmen show of the year; it’s the best show of 2011.
Cougar Town (ABC) S2: Ultimately I choose to highlight a show that few people have watched (Awkward) at the expense of the cul-de-sac crew and their wine loving ways. But I miss Jules (Courtney Cox) and friends a lot and I’m peeved that ABC continues to bench one of the funniest sitcoms around. Get over the title and you’re in for a treat.
The Vampire Diaries (CW)S2/3 & The Secret Circle (CW) S1: They’re clumped together because they air one after the other and each follow a group of ridiculously attractive supernatural folks, but in truth VD is the better show by far. Granted SC is still finding its way, and has thus far done some interesting things. VD is like an out of control train that burns through more plot than any other show on television. Much like Revenge, this is a show that’s firing on all cylinders and while many people would call it a guilty pleasure, I have no problem advocating on its behalf as one of the most entertaining shows on television.
True Blood (HBO) S4: Or, alternatively, how True Blood got its juju back. After a blah season three filled with disposal characters and meandering plot, the Louisiana based vamp/werewolf (and now witch) drama came back with a rocking season four that gave almost everyone something awesome to do. Special shout-outs to Jessica (Deborah Ann Woll) for her sexual awakening, ‘innocent’ Eric (Alexander Skarsgard), Stephen Moyer for finally making his character interesting and MVP Pam (Kristin Bauer) for her fantastic line delivery, as always. ‘Slit in a sundress’ may be the most profane – and hilarious – description of Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) ever.
Happy Endings (ABC) S2: Most improved comedy of the season by far. The antics of this Friends style group has proven significantly more entertaining now that they know the strengths (and occasional weakness) of the actors. It can still be hit or miss, but the jokes have been a lot funnier when they do connect.
Downton Abbey S1: Stuck somewhere between a miniseries and a series, this show by writer/creator Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) has won all kinds of accolades for its Upstairs Downstairs approach to a rich family and their servants just before the outbreak of WW1. And for good reason because it’s pretty fantastic. The full six episode first season is out on DVD and it’s compulsive viewing, so hole up in your home before mid-January in anticipation of Series two
Last Man Standing (ABC) / How to be a Gentleman (CBS) / Man Up (ABC): The holy trifecta of men reclaiming their manhood in a female dominated society irked me for their regression into caveman territory. Women rock and these shows do a disservice to both sexes for their antiquated betrayal.
Whitney (NBC) S1: I’ve actually watched enough episodes of this shrill, unfunny show to put it on the list. But that would mean giving it more press than it deserves. It’s not the worst show I’ve ever seen, but it’s not great by any means. At the end of the day, it simply is. We’ll see what happens at the end of the season, but this has all the makings of a one and done.
Hell on Wheels (AMC) S1: I only watched one episode of AMC’s take on Deadwood and I was bored to tears. Traditionally I give a show at least three to four episodes to find its bearings, but in this case this was a world I had no interest in returning to. There’s too much good television to follow along with.
American Horror Story (FX)S1: Like most of Ryan Murphy’s shows (Glee, Nip/Tuck, Popular), I knew that there would be issues of consistency in terms of characterization and narratives. But AMS is a different beast entirely: it went crazy right out of the gates and never looked back. I know lots of people appreciated its balls-to-the-walls approach and almost surreal-like use of violence and sex, but I knew after just a few episodes that I wasn’t going to get into it. I like characters to go with my horror and despite my insatiable Connie Britton love, there were no characters to be found on this schlocky gore-fest.
I don’t watch reality television for the most part. I find the majority of crime shows derivative, sometimes bordering on misogynistic(I’m talking to you, Criminal Minds) and I gave up on Modern Family S2/3 when I realized every joke was due to some form of miscommunication. Other television that I just never got around to or I’m not up to date on:
Breaking Bad (AMC) S4 / Damages (DirecTV) S4: I’m still on season 3 for both!
Doctor Who (BBC America/SPACE) S6: TVangie is constantly trying to get me on board but I never get around to the good doctor
Friday Night Lights (NBC) S5: I’m still hanging out in Dillon, TX circa season four so I have yet to see the end of my beloved Panthers. For the record: I still want Coach and Tami Taylor to be my parents.
Justified (FX) S2: The marathon continues in anticipation of season three
Lost Girl (Showcase) S2: Great CanCon (Canadian content). I’m in the early episodes of season two of this show about a succubus, Bo (Being Erica’s Anna Silk) who’s stuck in the middle of a battle between the light (good) and dark (bad) fae. It’s a nice ‘case of the week’ format with recurring mythology so you can jump in relatively easy and there’s a good deal of humour provided by Bo’s sidekick, Kenzi (Ksenia Solo).
#1: Doctor Who S6
I love Doctor Who. Now I don’t know what kind of fanboy (girl?) I am, since I only jumped on the Who bandwagon via its reboot in 2005 and haven’t watched any of the seasons prior (1963-1989) . Although David Tennant (10th Doctor) will always be my doctor, I did feel that his seasons weren’t as consistently compelling as this past series has been. Series six has been mind-blowing.
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, I will attempt a very brief summary: “The Doctor” is a timelord – the last of his alien race, who has a TARDIS – a time machine in the shape of a police call box, which allows him to travel the galaxy, transcending time and space. He currently has two companions – Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her husband Rory (Arthur Darvill). Along their adventures they occasionally meet up with River Song (Alex Kingston) who is currently living a reverse timeline whenever we see her (i.e. The first time we meet River is way back in series four, and it’s actually her final interaction with the Doctor, even though he’s just met her). It’s a bit complicated but honestly, that’s what makes this show so entertaining.
Showrunner Steven Moffat is an absolute genius – full stop. This season he finally gives us some answers regarding the more burning questions of the series – like the true identity of River Song. I don’t want to spoil anything here, because Moffat leaves a delicious trail of narrative breadcrumbs throughout the series and once you finally get the payoff to these loose threads – it’s just heavenly.
The writing is really key to why this is very clearly, my top show for 2011 – but the acting is pretty outstanding as well. Matt Smith is an excellent Doctor, on par with Tennant. He’s lovable and silly most of the time, but Smith really gives the emotional range that is needed for the Doctor. He’s quite brilliant. And the companions – Amy and Rory aren’t regulated to the periphery either. They’re just as integral to the series’ success as the Doctor. Karen Gillan shines throughout the series, but particularly shows her chops in episode “The Girl Who Waited”.
In the 13 episodes of the season, a good 10 of them are chalked full of significant plot development regarding the overarching questions. The other stand-alone episodes are still very good – it’s rare that you see an entire season so consistent with winning episodes. I also have to mention the episode “The Doctor’s Wife” penned by legendary sci-fi author Neil (frigin) Gaiman! And it’s just as good as you would expect. I could list all my favourite episodes from this season, but that would just be a list of 90% of them.
The sixth series of Doctor Who has got everything you’ve ever wanted – superb writing supported by exemplary acting; science-fiction and fantasy – with plenty of emotional heart; narrative twists and turns that may leave your head spinning but keeps you on your toes wanting more – it’s just damn good television. It easily gets my number one spot this year.
Returns: Likely early 2013 on BBC America/SPACE (plenty of time to catch up!)
Watch: Series 1 (from 2005) and work your way through.
So You Think You Can Dance (FOX) S8: Although I say I’m not a reality TV fan – I do watch some of it, and SYTYCD is one of my favourites. I really enjoy the “all stars” format – it gives us the chance to see some ah-mazing dancing.
The Sing-Off (NBC) S3: Here’s an example of a great singing competition show. Yes, it definitely has its moments of cheese, but generally I think it’s all well-intentioned. The judges are honest but never malicious or mean. They give criticism and praise like you’d see it in the real world. There’s no over-blown production or manipulation here. It’s all about the talent – which makes it enjoyable to watch and hum along with.
Saturday Night Live (NBC): Although there were some definite miss moments (The average is about 30% good skits to 70% bad), when I do get a laugh-out loud moment, it’s totally worth it. I particularly loved the “What’s My Name? skit” featuring Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga.
The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson (CBS) and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (NBC): I PVR both these shows and cannot stop laughing most of the time. Two very different formats but both deliver consistent, infectious laughs.
Modern Family (ABC) S3: I still love this show, it brings a smile to my face. A great ensemble cast and some en-pointe writing.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX) S7: So absurd, so offensive, so frickin hilarious.
Glee (FOX) S3: Another one of those shows that I’ve completely lost interest in, yet still watch every week. I guess I’m waiting for some of those ‘great show-stopping” songs – but they’ve been few and far between this season. Focusing more on the main cast, I’m quickly realizing how horrible these characters are. They are becoming caricatures and generally are just mean, mean people. The bulk of them are so incredibly self-absorbed it’s really hard to be sympathetic and/or interested. Will probably finish this season (for the sake of closure) and that’s it. Bring back the A-list guest stars please!
Jersey Shore (MTV): I truly am ashamed that I ever watched any episodes of this show. Right on par with The X-Factor as being disgusting displays of what constitutes “entertainment” these days.
Game of Thrones (HBO) – I started watching GoT when it first premiered, but found it too violent to continue watching. I really enjoyed the intrigue, the story was truly compelling as was the acting and the look of the show – beautiful. Unfortunately, I could not get some of the brutal violence out of my head. (The “crowning” scene and when that knight took out that horse’s head – eep! Seriously – I had nightmares!) I was just too much of a wimp to keep watching because I’m squeamish. I will likely try again with season two because the show is just too good to miss out on.
And that’s it for the 2011 Bitch Awards! Thanks so much to everyone who followed along. What do you think of our picks, btw? Agree with our number one choices for best and worst? Please be sure to sound off in the comments and let us know if there’s something you think we should have checked out. And remember that if you want to contact us directly, you can get ahold of us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We’re moving into January in just a few days and we’ll have a batch of fresh content, new features and new shows to cover in 2012.
Thanks for a great 2011!